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« Reply #8655 on: Sep 11, 2013, 07:08 AM »

September 10, 2013

Standoff With Rebels Continues in Philippines

By FLOYD WHALEY
IHT

MANILA — Hundreds of heavily armed separatist rebels, left out of a landmark peace deal, held villagers in the southern Philippines for a second day on Tuesday in a standoff with elite government troops that has left at least eight people dead and dozens wounded.

The Philippine military flew additional soldiers into embattled Zamboanga City to reinforce troops surrounding about 300 rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front who were holding four neighborhoods, officials said. Witnesses told local radio stations that they heard explosions and could see fires burning in the occupied areas.

The police said the incident began early Monday morning when several hundred heavily armed men attempted to enter the city. The men, who wore military uniforms of the Moro National Liberation Front, planned to hoist their flag over City Hall and declare independence from the national government, according to the police.

A spokesman for the Moro National Liberation Front, Emmanuel Fontanilla, told a local radio station that the rebels had attempted a peaceful march through the city when they were attacked by government forces.

The busy port city of about 800,000 has ground to a halt during the standoff, with flights into the area canceled and schools and most offices closed. Soldiers and police officers took control of major buildings and government offices in Zamboanga. Thousands of city residents were displaced. A police officer was wounded Tuesday in an exchange of gunfire with rebels.

Zamboanga City’s mayor, Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, said the rebels released five hostages on Tuesday, but national government officials said it was unclear whether villagers in the area were being held hostage or whether they were being used as human shields.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who oversees the Philippine national police department, said that it was unclear how many villagers were in the occupied areas but that the figure could be around 200.

“Whatever the number, it doesn’t appear that they are being treated as hostages because they are free to move about,” he said. “They are not bound or any way tied up or restricted.”

The group involved in the standoff, the Moro National Liberation Front, entered a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996, but its founding leader, Nur Misuari, has accused the government of not following through on commitments related to greater autonomy and economic development for the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao.

Last October, the Philippine government entered into a preliminary peace agreement with a larger separatist group — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — and left the rival Moro National Liberation Front out of the negotiations. Mr. Misuari has said repeatedly that the new peace deal undermines the 1996 pact and could lead to renewed violence.

President Benigno S. Aquino III said on Tuesday that government forces were attempting to calm the situation and prevent the violence from spreading. Zamboanga City is a predominantly Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim communities.

Areas adjacent to Zamboanga City, including the provinces of Basilan and Sulu, have been marked by kidnappings and firefights between separatist rebels and government forces. Zamboanga City has been an area of relative calm in recent years. The city is host to about 500 elite U.S. military personnel advising the Philippine government on anti-terrorism initiatives.
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« Reply #8656 on: Sep 11, 2013, 07:13 AM »


Indonesia threatens to deport Harrison Ford over 'confrontation' with minister

Actor is accused of harassing state institutions after interviewing forestry minister about illegal logging and climate change

Kate Hodal in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 September 2013 12.27 BST

The Hollywood actor Harrison Ford has been accused of "harassing state institutions" in Indonesia and threatened with deportation after allegedly confronting a minister during an interview about illegal logging and climate change.

The forestry minister, Zulkifi Hasan, said he was left shocked by Ford's emotionally charged interview techniques and complained there was no time to go over the questions before filming began, local media reported.

"I suddenly had my face made up and was then interviewed," Hasan told the state news agency Antara.

"I was given a chance to make only one or two comments."

The Star Wars actor has been in Indonesia filming an episode for the climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, which will air on the US television network Showtime in April 2014 and feature Matt Damon and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ford, 71, travelled to locations around the country to interview Indonesian activists and officials, including the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on issues including forest fires, peatland conservation and palm oil plantations.

But the forestry minister was so angered by his interview with Ford that he threatened to have the actor deported, despite the fact that Ford was due to leave on Tuesday anyway.

"There's no privilege for him although he is a great actor," the presidential spokesman Andi Arief said. "His crew and those who were helping him in Indonesia must be questioned to find out their motives for harassing a state institution."

He added: "If necessary, we will deport him."

Ford appears to have witnessed illegal logging taking place in Sumatra's Tesso Nilo national park and asked Hasan why deforestation was occurring in protected areas while the guilty seemingly had free rein.

"He was emotional," Hasan said. "I can understand that this is the first time for this American to come here and see Tesso Nilo. It seems that what he wants to see is any perpetrators involved in the damage immediately arrested."

The minister said he told Ford that illegal logging was a complicated issue in Indonesia and required a more varied approach to stem it than simple force.

Up to 15% of all the world's known plant, mammal and bird species reside in Indonesia's 17,000 islands, according to Greenpeace. Yet huge swaths of Indonesia's rainforests and peatlands have been cleared for palm oil and paper plantations, with additional concessions granted for mining and agricultural purposes.

Palm oil concessions sprawl across some 11m hectares in Indonesia, primarily in Sumatra and Kalimantan, figures from the US Foreign Agricultural Service show, with production since 2011 up 26% from the previous 10 years.

Yudhoyono, Indonesia's president, was forced to apologise earlier this year after forest fires, set by plantation farmers in Sumatra to clear land, led to Singapore's worst environmental crisis in 10 years and forced 200 schools to close in Malaysia.

Officials maintain, however, that the government is doing what it can to tackle climate change and deforestation, and Yudhoyono reportedly told Ford in their meeting on Tuesday: "We're trying to crack down on improprieties [like illegal logging] and we will be strict about it."

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Indonesians protest over Miss World contest

Organisers say event will go on as scheduled this weekend in Bali, after protests in several cities across country

Associated Press in Jakarta
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 14.22 BST   

Indonesian Muslim hardliners have resumed protests against the Miss World pageant as organisers said the event would go on as scheduled this weekend on the resort island of Bali.

In Jakarta, the capital, about 1,000 members of the hardline Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia rallied outside the building housing the local organiser of the contest.

Chanting "Allah akbar" (God is great), the protesters, mostly women, waved banners reading "Miss World Culture Liberalisation Campaign" and "Reject Miss World".

There were also protests in the Sumatran cities of Medan and Pekanbaru, and in Makassar, in Sulawesi. Protesters gathered at council buildings, calling on the government to revoke the permit for the contest.

The organiser, MNC media group, said it was not possible to cancel the contest or move the venue, and said the government had given assurances that it would provide security and protection for the event.

"I think there is a misunderstanding," Hary Tanoesoedibjo, head of MNC, said in Bali on Wednesday. "I assure that there will be nothing that runs against our culture. I would not accept if there was a bikini show."

The chair of the Miss World Organisation, Julia Morley, had earlier confirmed that none of the contestants would wear a bikini.

The competition will be held partly on Bali, with the final round set for 28 September on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Budi Rusmanto, an organiser in Jakarta, said: "The contest will not be different from other beauty pageants in Indonesia. The only difference is the participants."

Rejection of the event has come not only from hardline groups but also from the country's most influential group of clerics, the Indonesia Ulema Council, whose fatwas are followed by many devoted Muslims.

Last week the council urged the government to cancel the event, saying the exposure of skin by women in such a competition violated Islamic teachings.

Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate but a small extremist fringe has become more vocal in recent years.

On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, and Bandung, the West Java capital. On Tuesday, hundreds rallied in Jakarta.

The Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline group with a long record of vandalising nightspots, hurling stones at western embassies and attacking rival religious groups, has pledged to disrupt the event if it is allowed to be held in Indonesia.


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« Reply #8657 on: Sep 11, 2013, 07:17 AM »


Agony of Chile's dark days continues as murdered poet's wife fights for justice

Move made to extradite alleged killer of Victor Jara from United States, 40 years after bloody coup

Jonathan Watts and Jonathan Franklin in Santiago
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 September 2013    

When Joan Jara went to identify the body of her husband, Victor, she found it riddled with 44 bullets and dumped among a pile of corpses in the Santiago morgue. The poet's wrists and neck were broken and twisted. Where his belly ought to have been was a gory, gaping void.

The memory of that grim scene soon after the Chilean coup – on 11 September 1973 – is still painful for Jara, but it is not the only cause of her grief. The prime suspect in the killing, a former lieutenant in the Chilean army, is still alive and at liberty in the US, where he has citizenship through marriage.

Now the campaign to extradite him to his homeland has taken a step forward after Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, who lives in Florida, was served notice of a lawsuit in the US accusing him of torture, extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity.

It is not the only quest for justice in Chile that dates back to the dark days, weeks and years following General Augusto Pinochet's ousting of socialist president Salvador Allende. Thousands were executed or made to disappear, and thousands more tortured after the CIA-backed military takeover.

But Jara – folk-singer, theatre director and cultural ambassador of the Allende government – remains arguably the best-known victim and a potent symbol of a nation still struggling to find peace with itself more than two decades since the return of democracy.

It is his final poem – smuggled out from the stadium where he was incarcerated and killed – that adorns the entrance to Santiago's Museum of Memory. It is images of his face on banners carried by a new generation of student protesters and it is his music that will be played on radio station and in folk clubs as a nation remembers the tumult of the coup.

Jara was born in 1932 into a poor rural family, where he learned Chilean folk traditions from his mother. He mastered the guitar and piano and developed a reputation as a singer and songwriter and leading light in the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) movement. He met British-born dancer Joan in 1961, when she was teaching at the University of Chile."He came to see me with a little bunch of flowers that he probably stole from the park, because he never had any money," she recalls.

Jara put the theatre aside in 1970 to focus on music and to campaign for Allende, organising rallies, playing free concerts and writing songs about social injustice and the lives of ordinary Chileans.

Allende won the election, but faced the enmity of the Chilean right, and the US government, even before he took power in October 1970.

Declassified official US documents from that period show the CIA planned a coup almost as soon as Allende won the 1970 election. When he was finally ousted, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke of the covert pressure Washington had applied, saying to president Richard Nixon: "In the Eisenhower period, we would have been heroes."

As a voice of the left, Jara was also the target of death threats. "His last songs are somehow strangely prophetic. Victor knew what was coming," Joan says.

On the day of the coup, Jara was due to perform at the state technical university, where Allende was planning to announce a plebiscite. It never happened. Rumours that the military would step in had circulated for some time, but the violence still took many by surprise.

The current Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, who was then a student militant, recalls her father, an airforce general, being woken up at 4am by a phone call from a friend asking him if the military were about to take control.

"My father said 'Don't worry. Go back to sleep.' But it nagged him. He went out and saw all the cars missing in the generals' barracks and then he realised something was up," she said .

That morning, La Moneda, the presidential palace, was shelled by tanks. At noon, it was stormed by the military. Allende refused to surrender and killed himself before troops arrived.

"Victor and I listened together to Allende's last speech," Joan recalls. "Then we saw how one radio station after another replaced normal broadcasting with military marches and pronouncements."

Victor left Joan to join students defending the university. "I didn't look at him leave. It didn't seem important. I said goodbye in an ordinary way. That was the last I saw of him," she says.

Jara was among those rounded up by the military and taken to a stadium that had been turned into a makeshift prison camp. When Joan went to the British embassy for help, it was closed (though many other nations had opened their doors to asylum seekers). Victor managed to smuggle a message out of the stadium, telling Joan where he had last parked their car and saying that he loved her. That was the last she heard from him.

A week later, she was taken to the morgue and asked to identify his body. "Victor was among hundreds of bodies that were literally piled up; all with horrible wounds. Some with their hands tied behind their backs."

Despite what she saw, Joan considers herself fortunate. "I was lucky to be able to identify the body and come to terms with what they had done to him and that he was really dead."

According to Chile's truth and justice commission, 3,095 people were killed during the 1973-90 Pinochet dictatorship, including about 1,000 who "disappeared". Bodies are still being found today.

It was only last December that Barrientos and another officer were charged with Jara's murder and five others were named as accomplices. Lawyers said the case was based on the corroborated testimony of a conscript, Jose Paredes, who had earlier been accused of the killing.

The suit filed against him in the US last week invokes the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute, which gives US courts jurisdiction over rights violations committed in other nations.

It alleges that Barrientos ordered the torture of the poet in the stadium locker room and then played Russian roulette with Jara, shot him in the back of the head at point-blank range and ordered five conscripts to fire dozens of rounds into the body.

Barrientos has denied the accusations. "I do not need to face justice because I have not killed anyone," he told a TV crew that turned up at his home in Deltona, Florida, last year.

History remains fiercely contested in Chile. Santiago's museum, anniversary events and flood of related TV dramas and radio programmes attest to the growing recognition of the atrocities carried out during the Pinochet era. This week, the Chilean judges organisation made an unprecedented apology for its failure to protest human rights abuses during the Pinochet era.

But many of the general's former supporters argue the events of 1973 are now misrepresented. "Political parties have demonised anything vaguely related to the military government. People talk of abuses of human rights, but that is wrong," said Roberto Mardones, the administrator of the Pinochet Foundation, which has an exhibition of the general's medals and books (many on Napoleon) and a mock-up of his office.

"In 1973 citizens were desperate for change. There was a lot of hate. There were strikes, shortages of gas, sugar, matches and nappies. When the junta proclaimed on the radio that they would bring peace and stability, there was euphoria. I went out with my family to celebrate. It was like a carnival."

The gulf between such views and those of the victims shows the difficulty of reconciliation in Chile after 40 years.

Joan Jara said the US could now help by recognising its role and supporting efforts to bring the accused to justice.

"I appeal to people in the United States to put pressure on their government to respond to our appeals," she says. "The coup was supported and financed in part by the CIA so the American government at that time had some responsibility for what happened. I know many in the US condemned the coup and were in solidarity with the people of Chile and the victims of executions, disappearances and torture. This case is for all of us."


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« Reply #8658 on: Sep 11, 2013, 07:22 AM »

Astronauts back on Earth from International Space Station

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 5:23 EDT

Three astronauts returned to Earth Wednesday on board a Russian Soyuz capsule after a half-year mission on the International Space Station (ISS), landing in Kazakhstan, mission control in Moscow announced.

Russians Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin landed on schedule at 8:58 am Kazakh time (0258 GMT) in the Kazakh steppe, along with American Chris Cassidy.

A live feed on Russian mission control’s website showed rescuers extracting the three astronauts who were helped into chairs in the long grass of the steppe on a bright sunny morning.

“Everything went well, very smoothly,” said Vinogradov, smiling as rescuers sponged his face.

“Pavel (Vinogradov) was leading us the whole way. It was just a memorable flight,” said Cassidy, shaking hands with Vinogradov.

Vinogradov, 60, had been commander of the ISS with flight engineers Cassidy, 43, and Misurkin, 35. The group took off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome on March 29 and their mission lasted 167 days.

“The Soyuz TMA-08M capsule landed southeast of the town of Jezkazgan at 06:58 Moscow time. The landing went as planned,” the Russian space agency said in a statement on its website.

Cassidy took part in a dramatic spacewalk in May with another NASA astronaut, Tom Marshburn. They managed to halt an ammonia leak to the station’s power system that affected the US segment of the orbiting laboratory.

The three men were the first to take an express trip to the ISS in March, taking just under six hours instead of the usual two days to orbit and dock.

Under a new technique now employed by the Russian space agency, the Soyuz capsule only orbited Earth four times before docking at the ISS, instead of orbiting the Earth 30 times.

Misurkin was making his debut space flight, while Vinogradov was on his third space mission and Cassidy on his second.

Now left in the ISS are Russian commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and his flight engineers, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg of NASA.

In late September, they will be joined by American Michael Hopkins and Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky of Russia.


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« Reply #8659 on: Sep 11, 2013, 07:43 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

New documents show NSA routinely spied on phone records unrelated to terrorism cases

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 22:40 EDT

US intelligence officials declassified documents Tuesday revealing the National Security Agency violated privacy rules for three years when it sifted phone records of Americans with no suspected links to terrorists.

The revelations raised fresh questions about the NSA’s ability to manage the massive amount of data it collects and whether the US government is able to safeguard the privacy of its citizens.

The government was forced to disclose the documents by a judge’s order after a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group promoting digital privacy rights and free speech.

The foundation called the release of the documents a “victory” for transparency but intelligence officials said the papers illustrated how the spy service had made unintentional “mistakes” that were rectified under strict judicial oversight.

The government “didn’t release these new NSA docs out of the goodness of their heart,” the foundation wrote in a tweet. “They were compelled to by @EFF’s lawsuit.”

The documents, including hundreds of pages of court orders, reveal privacy violations from 2006 to 2009 in NSA’s collection of phone records or “metadata,” as part of the agency’s effort to track potential terror plots.

The release came after the scale of NSA spying was exposed in a series of bombshell media leaks in recent months by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has sought asylum in Russia.

Documents divulged by Snowden have shown the NSA conducts a massive electronic dragnet, including trawling through phone records and online traffic, that has sometimes flouted privacy laws.

Trying to defuse the firestorm over America’s electronic surveillance, President Barack Obama has called on US intelligence agencies to release more classified documents to shed light on the spying effort, which he has defended as a legitimate bid to prevent terror attacks.

According to papers released Tuesday, the NSA reported its privacy violations to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which found that the spy service was scooping up data “from United States persons not under investigation by the FBI,” according to one court ruling.

The NSA had been permitted by the court to only search phone numbers that had “reasonable articulable suspicion” of having links to terrorism.

But out of more than 17,000 numbers on a NSA list in 2009, the agency only had reasonable suspicion for about 1,800 of the numbers, two senior intelligence officials told reporters on Tuesday.

The declassified documents shed light on friction between the NSA and the court, with judges castigating the agency for failing to abide by their orders and misrepresenting the nature of their data collection.

A FISC judge, Reggie Walton, wrote in March 2009 that given the scale of the data collection, the court had to “rely heavily on the government to monitor this program to ensure that it continues to be justified” and that it respects privacy rights.

“To approve such a program, the Court must have every confidence that the government is doing its utmost to ensure that those responsible for implementation fully comply with the court’s orders. The Court no longer has such confidence,” he wrote.

The NSA had searched through thousands of phone records “in a manner that appears to be directly contrary to the above-quoted order and directly contrary to the sworn attestations of several executive branch officials,” Walton wrote in January 2009.

The documents released “show that the NSA repeatedly violated court-imposed limits on its surveillance powers, and they confirm that the agency simply cannot be trusted with such sweeping authority,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The rights group has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the NSA’s collection of phone records.

However, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in a statement the documents “demonstrate that the Government has undertaken extraordinary measures to identify and correct mistakes that have occurred in implementing the bulk telephony metadata collection program.”

He said there was no single cause of the privacy “incidents” but cited “the complexity of the technology” involved and “a lack of a shared understanding among various NSA components about how certain aspects of the complex architecture supporting the program functioned.”

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Obama Takes a Big Shot at Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in Syria Speech

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 10th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

President Obama responded to his Bush administration critics like Liz Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld with a not so thinly veiled shot at their failed foreign policy during his Syria speech.

Obama said:

    And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. That’s my judgment as commander in chief.

    But I’m also the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

    This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

    Now, I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them.

Here’s a hint about who the president was speaking to. Recently, Liz Cheney who served in Daddy and W’s administration said that Obama had taken, “an amateurish approach to national security and foreign policy.” Donald Rumsfeld, one of the major architects of Bush’s disastrous wars has been all over cable television bashing Obama, “This president has tried to blame everybody or anybody, for everything and leadership requires that you stand up, take a position, provide clarity and take responsibility. And I can’t imagine him saying that he didn’t draw the red line. But he did draw a red line…. We have ears!”

President Obama was talking directly to Cheney and Rumsfeld when he mentioned the decade that put more war making power in the hands of the president. Rumsfeld and the Cheneys are some of the biggest advocates for the belief in unlimited Commander in Chief powers. Obama has rejected this argument from day one, and it is why the neo-cons despise him. They think that listening to the American people on questions of war is a sign of weakness. To them a real president shoots first and asks questions later.

One of the key nuances of the president’s Syria speech was that Obama was trying to build a consensus while directly confronting the failed policies of the past that created America’s distrust and war weariness.

Obama took a big shot at the grumbling war mongers of the Bush administration, and the message was sent that this president won’t be doing things their way.

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Obama Walks The Line and Delivers a Masterful Speech on Syria

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 10th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The president began by giving background on the civil war in Syria, and what the US government has done. Interestingly, Obama pointed out how he has resisted the calls for military action. Obama talked about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and called the images, “sickening.” The president said that, “The civilized world has spent over a century trying to ban them.” The president laid out the evidence that Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack on August 21.

While making the case for strikes on Syria, Obama pointed out that he has spent four and half years trying to end war. The president directly answered several questions that have dominating the public debate on Syria. He promised that he will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. He said that he would not pursue open-ended strategy like in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that he would not engage in a prolonged bombing campaign like in Kosovo. The president said that the Assad regime does not have the capacity to threaten the US military. The president also said that Assad has no interest in escalation with the United States.

The president answered the question about an air strike strengthening al-Qaeda by arguing that terrorists will benefit more from an unstable Syria. The president walked the line by also speaking strongly about the role of diplomacy in resolving this.

President Obama then announced that he was asking Congress to postpone the Syria vote until the diplomatic track has been exhausted.

This speech was framed by the media as Barack Obama trying to sell the public on war, but what he really was doing was keeping the pressure on Syria while pushing forward on his diplomatic objective. The media questioned whether Obama could walk the line between discussing a military strike and diplomacy. The president did both with relative ease.

The reason why the president was able to make this argument is because he isn’t arguing for war. This isn’t about whether Obama convinced the American people. This is about Obama convincing Assad that his best course is to embrace the diplomatic solution.

The president laid the groundwork for a justification for military strikes, but he clearly explained the limits of such strikes. He also made the case for international intervention, but mostly, this speech was guided by the president’s desire for a diplomatic solution. It was a brilliant balancing act.

Obama delivered, and delivered big tonight. The president may have been talking the talk on a military strike, but that was only to set the stage for diplomacy. Dictators like Assad aren’t going to engage in diplomacy unless they feel it is their only choice.

The president’s speech tonight was a masterful display of how the Commander in Chief can use his powers effectively without taking the nation to war.

**********

The White House Admits that Kerry’s ‘Off The Cuff’ Syria Comment Was Planned for Months

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 10th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The White House admitted today that John Kerry’s ‘off the cuff’ comment about Syria’s chemical weapons was planned and in the works for months.

According to HuffPo:

    Secretary of State John Kerry may not have been speaking completely off the cuff on Monday when he said Syria could turn its chemical weapons over to the international community in order to avert a U.S. strike. In fact, the proposal appears to have been long in the making, pre-dating the horrific chemical attack in Damascus in late August.

    Speaking in London on Monday, Kerry surprised the world when he said Syria could hand over its entire stockpile of chemical weapons in one week in order to avoid a U.S. attack. It was still more surprising when Russia and Syria quickly backed the idea, as did officials at the United Nations.

    The State Department responded that Kerry had simply been making “a rhetorical argument.”

    While it’s not clear whether Kerry had planned in advance to make that remark on Monday, the concept had been first proposed more than a year earlier.

    “This wasn’t an accident,” a top White House official told The Huffington Post.

So much for the argument from some on the left that Russia was “bailing out” Obama on Syria. The truth is that those in the media (I’m looking at you, Ed Schultz), and those on the left who were screaming warmonger were so completely wrong that they should be ashamed of themselves.

As usual, Barack Obama was ten steps ahead of his critics, and that’s why this president is moving closer to a diplomatic solution on Syria’s chemical weapons.

Here’s a newsflash for the media. Obama is smarter than you. All presidents use the media’s ability to jump off the ledge and get hysterical over anything, but Obama has raised the technique to the level of high art. It is amazing that so many of the Obama bashers and media car chasers haven’t figured out yet that nothing is said accidentally. Every word is measured and used for a reason.

The idea that Russia pounced on an idea that John Kerry just so happened to casually mention demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of both the diplomatic process, and how presidential administrations use the media.

Obama’s goal always has been to get a diplomatic solution, and once again this president has outsmarted those who are guided by their own small minded biases.

**************

United Stupid America .....

Gun lobby campaign ousts Democrats in Colorado and Connecticut

National Rifle Association attacks 'anti-gun billionaires' and hails election results as warning to lawmakers considering gun reform

Associated Press in Denver
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 September 2013 08.56 BST   

Two Democratic state lawmakers who backed tighter gun laws in the aftermath of mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut have been voted out of office in a recall election promoted by both grassroots activists and an influential gun-rights lobbying group.

Colorado Senate president John Morse lost by just 343 votes on Tuesday in a swing district in the Republican stronghold of Colorado Springs while fellow state senator Angela Giron lost by a bigger margin in a largely blue-collar district that usually favours Democrats.

The National Rifle Association said the election sent a clear message to lawmakers that they should protect gun rights and be accountable to their constituents, not to "anti-gun billionaires" – a swipe at the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who supported Giron and Morse.

Democrats will still maintain control of the state legislature and the laws are expected to remain in place. "The loss of this senate seat is purely symbolic," Morse said.

Angered by new limits of 15 rounds for ammunition magazines and expanded background checks on private gun sales, gun-rights activists tried to recall a total of four lawmakers but only succeeded in launching efforts against two. It was the first for state legislators since Colorado adopted the procedure in 1912.

The recalls were seen as the latest chapter in the national debate over gun rights – and, for some, a warning to lawmakers in swing states who might contemplate gun restrictions in the future.

But the vote also exposed divisions between urban and suburban areas and more rural areas in a state where support for guns has not been a partisan issue. Dozens of elected county sheriffs have sued to block the gun laws and some activists are promoting a largely symbolic measure by some rural counties to secede from the state.

The gun control debate was one of the most emotionally charged of Colorado's legislative session this year. Barack Obama added to the attention on the Colorado statehouse as his administration unsuccessfully pushed the US Congress to enact similar gun controls.

The debate was rekindle by the mass shootings at an Aurora, Colorado, cinema in July 2012 and at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December. The new gun laws were major victories for Colorado Democrats, who rallied majorities in the both chambers of the state legislature this spring to pass them without Republican support. The legislation was signed into law by Democratic governor John Hickenlooper.

Reported contributions to Morse and Giron totaled about $3m (£1.9m), dwarfing the amount raised by gun activists who petitioned for the recall, though some independent groups did not have to report spending. Both the NRA and Bloomberg contributed more than $300,000 to the pro- and anti-recall campaigns respectively.

Hickenlooper initially rejected calls for stronger gun control laws after 12 people were killed and a further 70 injured in Aurora in July 2012. He changed his mind before Newtown shooting, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults.

Colorado's governor, who is up for re-election in 2014, kept a low profile during the recalls. A recent statewide poll by Quinnipiac University suggested that 52% of voters disapproved of his gun policy while only 35% approved.

Morse, a former police chief in a Colorado Springs suburb, was first elected to the state senate in 2006. He will be replaced by Republican Bernie Herpin. Giron will be replaced by former Pueblo police officer George Rivera.

*************

Missouri Republicans Set to Arrest Federal Agents and Let Criminals Go Free

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 11th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Missouri_House_HB436_Keep_GunsMissouri once had a reputation for lawlessness. The state was part of the guerrilla war being waged in Bloody Kansas between Free Staters and pro-slavery forces. During the Civil War, gangs led by men such as William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, and Cole Younger, made reputations as ruthless murderers on behalf of the Southern cause, and they were not alone, as others plundered and murdered for the Union.

Far from being the “Show Me State” – unless it was to show a gun – in the 1870s Missouri earned a reputation as the “robber state” thanks to new bands of outlaws like that of Frank and Jesse James. During the Prohibition-generated gangster era, the Ozarks became a refuge for machine gun-toating outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Missouri Republicans – already making racism an official state policy and entertaining the return of the gas chamber – seem determined to bring those terrible days back.

If the Republican-dominated legislature has its way, Missouri residents will not only be able to own machine guns – federally regulated since the gangster era – but federal agents would be arrested if they tried to do anything about it.

House Bill 436, the so-called Second Amendment Preservation Act, which passed the Senate 26-6 and the House 116-38, states,

    (1) All federal acts, laws, orders, rules, and regulations, whether past, present, or future, which infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 23 of the Missouri Constitution shall be invalid in this state, shall not be recognized by this state, shall be specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in this state.
    (2) Such federal acts, laws, orders, rules, and regulations include, but are not limited to:
    (a) The provisions of the federal Gun Control Act of 1934;
    (b) The provisions of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968;
    (c) Any tax, levy, fee, or stamp imposed on firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition not common to all other goods and services which could have a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of those items by law-abiding citizens;
    (d) Any registering or tracking of firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition which could have a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of those items by law-abiding citizens;
    (e) Any registering or tracking of the owners of firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition which could have a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of those items by law-abiding citizens;
    (f) Any act forbidding the possession, ownership, or use or transfer of any type of firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition by law-abiding citizens; and
    (g) Any act ordering the confiscation of firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition from law-abiding citizens.

It would also prohibit background checks and publication of any information about a gun-owner.

That there are serious problems with this thinking is recognized even by Second Amendment-friendly Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, who has vetoed the legislation, saying that is in violation of the Supremacy Clause, which gives federal laws precedence over state laws.

    This unnecessary and unconstitutional attempt to nullify federal laws would have violated Missourians’ First Amendment right to free speech – while doing nothing to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners. In fact, under this bill, newspaper editors around the state that annually publish photos of proud young Missourians who harvest their first turkey or deer could be charged with a crime.

It is also opposed by St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who points out that, “(We are) basically saying to criminals, ‘OK criminals, it’s OK to come to Missouri. We won’t prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.’”

Federal agents, on the other hand, would be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law – for trying to uphold federal law.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence explains the reasons the federal government came down on the ownership of machine guns:

    The National Firearms Act of 1934 (“NFA”) imposes a tax on the making and transfer of machine guns and certain other weapons, as well as a special occupational tax on persons and entities engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing and dealing in those weapons. (The NFA distinguishes between “making” a weapon, and “manufacturing” a weapon. Only a registered NFA manufacturer can “manufacture” a machine gun; other persons who construct machine guns are “making” them, according to the NFA. (26 U.S.C. § 5845(i); 27 C.F.R. § 479.11) ) As detailed below, the law also requires the registration of all machine guns.

    While the NFA was enacted by Congress as an exercise of its authority to tax, the underlying purpose of the law was to curtail, if not prohibit, transactions in machine guns and certain other weapons. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Dept. of Justice, National Firearms Act Handbook 9-15, June 2007) Congress found these firearms pose a significant crime problem because of their frequent use in crime, and the $200 making and transfer taxes were considered quite severe at the time and adequate to discourage or eliminate transfers in these firearms. The $200 tax has not changed since 1934.

Probably one of the most offensive consequences of federal law is that “Any machine gun involved in a violation of the NFA is subject to seizure and forfeiture. Forfeited machine guns cannot be sold at public sale, but may be destroyed or transferred within the federal government, or to a state or local government.”

At the moment, Missouri is known for places like Branson, where people go to have fun. If Republicans have their way, Missouri will again become a refuge for criminals and be known once more as the “robber state.” Who then will care to risk their lives to travel to Branson?

Today, the Missouri legislature will vote, in essence, to secede from the Union, as they meet to override Gov. Nixon’s veto. The bill’s proponents raise all sorts of bizarre defenses of the bill, claiming it does not add guns to the street, and CNN quotes one gun owner as saying, “There are people saying this is the same as seceding from the Union. Missouri did not secede from the Union in 1862, and it does not do so by passing this law.”

Missouri may not have seceded but it supplied soldiers to both the Union and Confederate armies just as it provided men to both the pro- and anti-slavery movements, and the guns wielded by lawless men then and through the Civil War and beyond, murdered men, women, and children without remorse. That is not a reputation any state should aspire to.

*************

September 10, 2013

G.O.P. Eyes Hard Line Against Health Care Law

By JACKIE CALMES
NYT

WASHINGTON — The House Republican leadership signaled Tuesday that Republicans would support an essential increase in the nation’s debt limit in mid-October only if President Obama and Democrats agree to delay putting his health insurance program into full effect — a demand that sets the stage for another economically risky confrontation.

The strategy, which Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, outlined to a private caucus of Republicans, underscored the clout of the most militant conservatives, whose demands to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act have cleaved the party. While the tactic is fraught with risk for Republicans, some conservative lawmakers and groups objected that it did not go far enough in using the looming fiscal deadlines as leverage with Democrats.

The proposal for dealing with both fiscal fights of the fall — on a continuing resolution to keep financing federal operations after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and a mid-October deadline for increasing the Treasury borrowing limit — seemed to reflect House leaders’ belief that Republicans’ bigger political risk is being blamed by voters for a government shutdown, as they were during the Clinton administration.

Many economists and analysts say the bigger economic risk, however, is a failure to lift the debt ceiling, which would leave the Treasury unable to pay creditors and bills that the government already is obligated for, harm the nation’s credit rating and ultimately could cause the first default. Yet that issue is where House leaders are making their more serious stand against the three-year-old health insurance law they call Obamacare. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio had already promised “a whale of a fight” with the administration over the debt limit, and Mr. Cantor shared more specifics of the strategy with his colleagues at the party meeting.

“This law is not ready for prime time and will never be,” Mr. Cantor said in a statement.

This week, he said, the House will vote on a resolution to continue discretionary spending for domestic and military programs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 13 at the current reduced levels, which reflect the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, which Mr. Obama and Democrats want to end. To appease hard-line conservatives, the House will also vote on a companion resolution to defund the health care program.

The Republican House majority presumably would pass both resolutions. But the Democratic-controlled Senate could choose to ignore the health insurance measure and negotiate over government funding.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have agreed to meet on Thursday, for the first time since Congress returned from its five-week summer recess, to begin discussions on the coming fiscal fights over the continuing resolution and the debt limit.

In the House, the Republicans’ private caucus on Mr. Cantor’s strategy came as Congress was roiled by the debate over Syria. While several lawmakers lodged objections, the reception was not so hostile initially to dissuade the leadership from following through.

But the Club for Growth, an activist group feared by many Republicans for its track record of financing primary campaigns against incumbents deemed insufficiently conservative, quickly sent an e-mail to Congressional offices urging opposition to the proposed continuing resolution, and warning that the vote would be part of the group’s annual scorecard for lawmakers.

“Rather than fight to defund Obamacare, or to even have an honest debate about it, House leaders have decided to go with a ‘smoke and mirrors’ strategy that avoids the issue,” the club’s vice president for government affairs, Andy Roth, wrote in the e-mail.

And the club president, Chris Chocola, a Republican former congressman from Indiana, in a statement characterized the strategy as “legislative tricks,” and added, “I hope this proposal is nothing more than a bad joke and is quickly discarded.”

Outside the Capitol, Tea Party supporters protested the health insurance law and called for Mr. Obama’s impeachment. One sign pictured the president alongside Hitler and Stalin with the words “Abort Obumacare!” and “Impeach the Liar!”

While House leaders’ immediate problem is unifying Republicans behind a fiscal strategy, ultimately they need support from Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama to both finance military and domestic programs and raise the debt limit. And the White House and most Congressional Democrats support the health law and oppose Republicans’ proposed budget levels.

Those levels, Democrats argue, provide more money and flexibility for the Pentagon, while freezing domestic programs at sequestration levels lower than provided in the budgets that Mr. Obama proposed and the Senate passed for the 2014 fiscal year.

A White House official said that the administration had not seen House Republicans’ proposed language for a government-funding resolution, but that the president would not accept anything “that defunds Obamacare or further cut the investments we need to grow and create jobs.” As for the debt limit, the official reiterated the president’s position that he will not negotiate over raising the borrowing ceiling.

“Unfortunately, it sounds like the extreme right wing has once again defeated the wiser voices within the Republican Party,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Republicans, he added, “are now threatening our entire economy if we don’t hand control of Americans’ health care back to the insurance industry.”

***************

September 10, 2013

To Cut Abuse, F.D.A. Is Altering Painkiller Label Rules

By SABRINA TAVERNISE
NYT

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced changes to the labeling requirements for long-acting painkillers, in a further effort to curb prescription drug abuse, which now takes more American lives than car accidents or gunshot wounds.

Agency officials said the labeling changes, set to take effect by the end of the year, would “help improve the thoughtful prescribing of these medicines,” which include OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid that has figured prominently in the abuse epidemic. Morphine and fentanyl are other examples.

The agency is also requiring producers of such drugs to conduct studies on the long-term risks of taking them. Researchers applauded the move, saying that a lack of such data was a major problem in determining safe prescribing practices.

At the heart of the changes is a modification of the language on what kind of pain the drugs are supposed to be prescribed for. Current labels say the drugs should be used for moderate to severe pain, an indication that Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, the deputy director for regulatory programs at the F.D.A.’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said was not quite right.

“What is moderate to me could be severe to you,” he said. The new language, he said, will say that the drugs should be reserved for use in patients who do not have other treatment options, and be used for management of pain that is “severe enough” to require round-the-clock treatment.

The move was prompted by a petition from Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an advocacy group in New York. Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the president of the group, said that he was pleased by the announcement, but that he would have liked the agency to have gone further, for example by defining limits on the duration of use and dosage.

A major issue hanging over opioid use is a lack of data about the drugs’ long-term risks and effectiveness. Dr. Throckmorton said the agency was trying to address that by telling producers that they had to run studies and clinical trials on drugs currently on the market to better assess the risks. In a letter sent to drug makers, the agency said that companies would also have to perform other studies, including one examining whether patients on opioids develop increased sensitivity to pain.

The next step, Dr. Throckmorton said, is “a series of conversations” with manufacturers of such drugs “about what those studies and trials will look like.” He expects to start receiving information in 2015.

Dr. Erin E. Krebs, a pain researcher at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Minneapolis, said that “it would be fabulous” to have such data so that doctors could better understand how or whether they should be prescribing opioids for long periods.

Dr. Nathaniel Katz, an assistant professor of anesthesia at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, said he was skeptical that the labeling changes would have much of an effect, because they represented current practice. But he said the requirement that companies conduct studies was a major advance.

“We can’t possibly prescribe these drugs knowledgeably unless we know what the incidence is of serious and fatal complications,” he said.

Barry Meier contributed reporting from New York.

*****************

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz’s Defund Obamacare Rally Attracts Dozens of Medicare Using Elderly People

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 10th, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz’s defund Obamacare rally today turned out to be a giant bust, as the only people most interested in stopping Obamacare are old people who are already on Medicare.

Pat Robertson’s CBN Network touted the anticipated huge crowd size, “The start date for enrolling in the Affordable Care Act is Oct. 1. As the nation gets closer to that date, activists who want to defund Obamacare are putting more pressure on legislators. On Tuesday, they’re bringing thousands of protestors to Washington, D.C., for an event called Exempt America.”

This was a shot of the crowd that they got: (see below)

Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz’s defund Obamacare rally today turned out to be a giant bust, as the only people most interested in stopping Obamacare are old people who are already on Medicare.

Ouch. Crowd shots were not often seen during the live stream of the event, and for good reason most of the people there appeared to be the typical older white Republican voters. The great irony of the rally was that many of the people who did attend the event were likely on Medicare. Those in attendance cheered on speaker after speaker as they railed against government run healthcare all the while knowing that they are recipients of one of the best healthcare programs in the country, which just so happens to be run by the government.

The rally itself took place on an unseasonably hot summer day, but the sparsity of the crowd was confirmation of the dying influence of the tea party. The rally itself was nothing special. Republican congressman trotted out their promises to get rid of Obamacare, while the crowd gleefully applauded as both sides appeared happy to disregard the reality that Obamacare isn’t going anywhere.

A few ambitious speakers promised to end the American war in Syria that may never start. All in all, this was a tribute to Republican delusion. Tea party organizations promise attendance in the thousands when they draw hundreds. Those who do attend hear a fantastic tale of Republican politicians promising to do things that they do not have the power to do, and everyone goes home happy because not facing reality tends to work for some people.

The tea party is dead. Obamacare is the law of the land, and if these are the people that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are counting on to get them to the White House, they will be sorely disappointed.


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Pig Putin warns US not to launch attack in Syria

Russian president appeals to Americans in New York Times article claiming intervention would unleash more terror

Dan Roberts in Washington, Julian Borger and agencies
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 10.41 BST   

President Barack Obama meets Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Pig Putin, the Russian president, has warned against US military intervention in Syria, writing in what he called a direct address "to the American people and their political leaders" that it could "increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism".

Syria was not witnessing a battle for democracy but "an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country", Pig Putin said, in a New York Times comment piece repeating assertions that rebels rather than the government might have used chemical weapons, "to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons", and may be planning further attacks, even against Israel.

"An American attack could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilise the Middle East and north Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."

Pig Putin's article was published after the US welcomed what the Obama administration called "very specific" Russian proposals to secure the handover of Syria's chemical weapons before key talks in Geneva. The Russian president said recent events had "prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders".

In meetings planned for later on Thursday and again on Friday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, will ask Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to list, quarantine and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks.

Kerry is accompanied by US chemical weapons experts to look at and possibly expand on Russian ideas for the complex task of dealing safely with the vast stockpiles in the midst of the brutal and unpredictable Syrian conflict. Russian technical experts will join Lavrov in the meetings.

"Our goal here is to test the seriousness of this proposal, to talk about the specifics of how this would get done, what are the mechanics of identifying, verifying, securing and ultimately destroying the chemical weapons," the state department said shortly before Kerry left Washington.

In his article, Pig Putin welcomed Obama's consideration of the Russian-backed plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons and said his relationship with the US president was marked by "growing trust". But he warned: "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it.

"Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan: 'You're either with us or against us.'" Pig Putin said Russia was not aiming to protect the Syrian government but international law.

The White House said on Wednesday it was increasingly confident that its Kremlin partners were acting in good faith by "putting their prestige on the line".

"We have seen more co-operation from Russia in the last two days than we have heard in the last two years," said the White House spokesman Jay Carney.

"The proposal they have put forward is very specific and the Syrian reaction is a total about-face. This is significant."

But the sudden thaw in White House attitudes towards Russia has met with scepticism in Washington, where many see it as an excuse for Barack Obama to avoid defeat in Congress over military action against Syria. A speech by Obama to the American people on Wednesday night was criticised by hawkish Republicans after it called for a suspension of Senate attempts to pass a resolution authorising US strikes.

The White House insisted that the Russian offer was genuine and a direct result of the pressure it had put on Syria. "There is no question that the credible threat of US force helped bring us to this point," Carney said. "By making this proposal Russia has, to its credit, put its prestige on the line when it comes to a close ally."

The US wants an agreement with Russia to be bolstered by a UN resolution to hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. The talks in Geneva between Kerry and Lavrov will not cover the wording of any resolution, but the US tried to play down a potential rift over whether it should contain the threat of military action if Syria fails to comply.

The talks will need to resolve differences between western powers and Russia over whether the disarmament process should be backed by a threat of force if the Syrian government reneges on the timetable.

Diplomats also said it was unlikely a UN security council vote would take place before the publication of a report by UN weapons inspectors on the suspected chemical weapons attack in rebel-held eastern Damascus on 21 August. That report is expected some time next week.

US, British and French diplomats continued to meet at the UN headquarters on Wednesday to discuss a French draft resolution that would give Bashar al-Assad's regime 15 days to produce an "exhaustive, complete and definitive declaration of the locations, amount and types of all items related to its chemical warfare programme".

The draft, according to a copy obtained by Reuters, would then order "immediate on-site inspections of Syria's chemical, biological and related vehicles". The full security council was due to meet later on Wednesday.

The Syrian government has acknowledged it agreed with Russia that it would sign the 1993 chemical weapons convention, deliver a full declaration of its arsenal and its locations, and provide access to UN, Russian and other inspectors.

Kerry said the US was still pushing for a UN resolution to bolster the plan which would punish Syria if it delayed or broke off the disarmament process. But he indicated he was prepared to listen to the Russian point of view.

"We need a full resolution from the security council in order to have confidence that this has the force that it ought to have. That's our belief, and obviously the Russians are at a slightly different place. We'll have to see where we get to. I'm not going to negotiate this out in public," Kerry said.

The French president, François Hollande, also signalled flexibility on the wording of a resolution. A statement, released after a meeting of Hollande's defence council, said: "The president emphasised France's determination to explore all avenues at the UN security council, in order to enable actual and verifiable control of the chemical weapons present in Syria as soon as possible."

France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is due in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss the issue with Lavrov and may visit Beijing on Monday for talks with the Chinese government, which has been noncommittal on France's draft resolution.

• Additional reporting by Paul Lewis in Washington

**************

What Pig Putin's address to Americans on Syria really means

The Russian president's New York Times piece appears to offer friendship to Barack Obama while sticking the knife in

Simon Tisdall   
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 12.16 BST   

Pig Putin's highly unusual and razor-edged comment piece setting out his views on the Syria crisis, addressed directly to the American people and published by the New York Times, is a mixture of closely argued policy points and breathtaking political effrontery.

Even as he appears to offer the hand of friendship and co-operation to Barack Obama, the Russian leader repeatedly plunges the knife into the president's wounds, not just on Syria but on a range of other sore points, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the UN and terrorism.

In bearding the US president on his home ground, Pig Putin – who encourages an off-duty image of himself as a bare-chested, fearless tough-guy hunter and outdoorsman – seems to be trying to add Obama to his trophy bag, while simultaneously presenting himself as an altruistic global statesman.

The Pig says:

    No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without security council authorisation.

Translation: we are not going to stand back and let Syria become another Iraq (when US-led military action was taken without UN authority). Pig Putin implies that by its principled stance, Russia has become the chief defender of the UN system and international law. This is an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy, given that Russia has blocked effective UN action on Syria for two years and is bound, for example, like the US, to uphold the international chemical weapons convention.

The Pig says:

    The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders.

Translation: Pig Putin raises the spectre of a wider Middle East conflagration without acknowledging that, if it happened, Russia's policy so far will have made this outcome more likely, and that Moscow would be deeply involved in any conflict through proxy forces and arms sales. This is real Orwellian double-speak.

But he delivers a powerful poke in the eye for Obama when he suggests US action in Syria could torpedo the Israel-Palestine peace process, which the US is trying to revive, and make it harder to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear programme.

That the man responsible for appalling past violence in Chechnya should summon the pope as an ally is extraordinary. And the idea that he really cares about "innocent victims" in Syria is sickening.

The Pig says:

    A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.

Translation: on the day after the 9/11 anniversary, Pig Putin suggests he knows better than Obama, the man who has effectively crushed the leadership of al-Qaida and killed Osama bin Laden, about the perils posed by jihadism. But he speaks for many in the west when he argues that mercenaries fighting in Syria, and armed by US allies, could one day move their operations to other countries, as happened in Libya-Mali, and most famously in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Reminding Obama how the US helped create the Taliban is a low blow.

The Pig says:

    No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack – this time against Israel – cannot be ignored.

Translation: the claim that the rebels, not the government, have used chemical weapons to trick the US into intervening is not new, but by recycling it, Pig Putin further muddies the waters. The reference to a possible CW attack on Israel is a masterstroke, given the sensitivity of the Democratic administration and its backers to all matters affecting the Jewish state.

The Pig says:

    Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan 'you're either with us or against us'.

Translation: another canny blow delivered to the American solar plexus. Pig Putin is echoing many people in the US who oppose their country's activities as self-appointed global policeman and believe its values have been severely compromised in the post-9/11 years. By offering a resumed diplomatic dialogue as the way out of the Syrian morass, Pig Putin is attempting to seize and hold the moral high ground and assert Russian leadership amid the evident confusion in Washington. If his initiative ultimately prevents US action, he expects to be seen as a hero in many parts of the world.

The Pig says:

    It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Translation: this passage takes the biscuit for sheer chutzpah. Referring directly to Obama's depiction this week of America as an exceptional nation called to do great things in the world, the Pig invokes God Almighty, democracy, and the American constitution in one breath to suggest Obama is a menace to global society. You can almost hear the cynical laughter in the Kremlin. It is hard to remember that Pig Putin is the man, more than any other, who has made a mockery of democracy in Russia.
 
****************

Syria crisis: US welcomes 'significant' Russian proposal on chemical weapons

White House praises Russian co-operation over Syrian weapons crisis before key talks get under way in Geneva on Thursday

Dan Roberts in Washington and Julian Borger in London
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 08.09 BST   

The US has welcomed what it called "very specific" Russian proposals to secure the handover of Syria's chemical weapons before key talks in Geneva on Thursday.

Placing its faith in Moscow's leverage over its Syrian ally, the White House urged patience and said it was increasingly confident that its Kremlin partners were acting in good faith by "putting their prestige on the line".

"We have seen more co-operation from Russia in the last two days than we have heard in the last two years," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

"The proposal they have put forward is very specific and the Syrian reaction is a total about-face. This is significant."

The sudden thaw in White House attitudes toward Russia has met with scepticism in Washington, where many see it as an excuse for Barack Obama to avoid defeat in Congress over military action against Syria. A speech by Obama to the American people on Wednesday night was criticised by hawkish Republicans after it called for a suspension of Senate attempts to pass a resolution authorising US strikes.

The White House insisted the Russian offer was genuine and a direct result of the pressure it had put on Syria. "There is no question that the credible threat of US force helped bring us to this point," Carney said. "By making this proposal Russia has, to its credit, put its prestige on the line when it comes to a close ally."

But writing on Wednesday night in the New York Times, Pig Putin drew contrast between Russia's approach and the Obama administration's talk of military intervention – something the Russian president warned could "increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism".

Syria was not witnessing a battle for democracy but "an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country", Pig Putin said, in an editorial repeating assertions that rebels rather than the government might have used chemical weapons, "to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons", and may be planning further attacks, even against Israel.

"[An American attack] could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilise the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."

Pig Putin welcomed Obama's consideration of the Russian-backed plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons and said his relationship with the US president was marked by "growing trust". But he warned: "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it.

"Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan: 'You're either with us or against us.'"

Separate discussions over a UN security council resolution were taking place in New York on Wednesday. The talks in Geneva between John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will not cover the wording of any resolution. But the US tried to play down a potential rift over whether it should contain the threat of military action if Syria fails to comply.

The White House hinted the Geneva talks would go on for at least two days and refused to discuss the Russian proposal which it received on Wednesday.

"Each side will bring technical experts so I will expect this will take some time," Carney said. "There are communications ongoing and papers exchanged but we are not at the stage of putting out a public piece of paper."

The talks will need to resolve differences between western powers and Russia over whether the disarmament process should be backed by a threat of force if the Syrian government reneges on the timetable.

Diplomats also said that it was unikely that a UN security council vote would take place before the publication of a report by UN weapons inspectors on the suspected chemical weapons attack in rebel-held eastern Damascus on 21 August. That report is expected some time next week.

Meanwhile, US, British and French diplomats continued to meet at the UN headquarters on Wednesday to discuss a French draft resolution that would give Bashar al-Assad's regime 15 days to produce an "exhaustive, complete and definitive declaration of the locations, amount and types of all items related to its chemical warfare programme".

The draft, according to a copy obtained by Reuters, would then order "immediate on-site inspections of Syria's chemical, biological and related vehicles". The full security council was due to meet later on Wednesday.

The Syrian government has acknowledged it agreed with Russia that it would sign the 1993 chemical weapons convention, deliver a full declaration of its arsenal and its locations, and provide access to UN, Russian and other inspectors.

Kerry said that the US was still pushing for a UN resolution to bolster the plan and which would punish Syria if it delayed or broke off the disarmament process. But he indicated he was prepared to listen to the Russian point of view.

"We need a full resolution from the security council in order to have confidence that this has the force that it ought to have. That's our belief, and obviously the Russians are at a slightly different place. We'll have to see where we get to. I'm not going to negotiate this out in public," the secretary of state said in answer to questions on an online chat forum.

The president of France, François Hollande, also signalled flexibility on the wording of a resolution. A statement from the presidency, released after a meeting of Hollande's defence council, said: "The president emphasised France's determination to explore all avenues at the United Nations security council, in order to enable actual and verifiable control of the chemical weapons present in Syria as soon as possible."

France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is due in Moscow next Tuesday to discuss the issue with Lavrov and may visit Beijing on Monday for talks with the Chinese government, which has been non-committal on France's draft resolution.

In a televised address to the American people on Tuesday night, Obama laid a path towards a possible diplomatic resolution to the impasse, He pledged to work directly but insisted military strikes remained a possibility.

However, in what were his most doveish remarks since his administration began briefing two weeks ago that a strike was imminent, Obama said he would wait for the United Nations inspectors to complete their report on the 21 August chemical attacks outside Damascus before taking further action. He said there were "encouraging signs" of a political resolution.

In London, officials revealed that Britain approved the export to Syria of more chemicals that could be used to make sarin, a powerful nerve agent, than had previously been acknowledged.

Five export licences were approved for the sale of more than 4,000kg of sodium fluoride between 2004 and 2010. They were on top of exports approved last year of sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride under licences but subsequently revoked on the grounds they could be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of weapons.

The five licences were revealed by Vince Cable, the business secretary, in a letter to Sir Robert Stanley, chairman of the Commons committee on export controls.

Additional reporting by Paul Lewis in Washington

*************

Syrian chemical weapons: Russia hands disarmament plan to US

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov to discuss proposal at two days of talks in Geneva

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 September 2013 17.42 BST

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday after Moscow reportedly presented Washington with its plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons.

The US secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister are expected to hold two days of talks to discuss Moscow's plan, which has not been made public, and to try to resolve differences between western powers and Russia over whether the disarmament process should be backed by a threat of force if the Syrian government reneges on the timetable. The discussions could determine whether or not the plan is put into action.

Plans to take the dispute to the UN security council for a vote have been put on hold pending the outcome of the Geneva talks. US, British and French diplomats continued to meet on Wednesday at the UN headquarters to discuss a French draft resolution that would give Bashar al-Assad's regime 15 days to produce an "exhaustive, complete and definitive declaration of the locations, amount and types of all items related to its chemical warfare programme".

The draft, according to a copy obtained by Reuters, would then order "immediate on-site inspections of Syria's chemical, biological and related vehicles".

The Syrian government has acknowledged it agreed with Russia that it would sign the 1993 chemical weapons convention, provide a full declaration of its arsenal and its locations, and provide access to UN, Russian and other inspectors. The reconciliation minister, Ali Haidar, confirmed to the Associated Press on Wednesday: "There was talk about putting these weapons under international supervision."

However, underlining the uncertainty surrounding the Russian plan, Haidar said it was still a "broad headline" that needed to be developed. He added: "There was no talk about moving and transferring control [of the weapons]."

The news that Moscow had handed its plan to Washington came from a Russian news agency. Interfax, the state agency, quoted a Russian government source as saying: "The Russian side has already given the United States the plan for fulfilling the initiative to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control … We expect to look at it during the meeting in Geneva with US secretary of state John Kerry."

Going into the talks, Kerry said the US was still pushing for a UN resolution that would punish Syria if it delayed or broke off the disarmament process, but was prepared to listen to the Russian point of view.

"We need a full resolution from the security council in order to have confidence that this has the force that it ought to have. That's our belief and obviously the Russians are at a slightly different place. We'll have to see where we get to. I'm not going to negotiate this out in public," the secretary of state said in answer to questions on an online chat forum.

The president of France, Francois Hollande, also signalled flexibility on the wording of a resolution. A statement from the presidency, released after a meeting of Hollande's defence council, said: "The president emphasised France's determination to explore all avenues at the United Nations security council, in order to enable actual and verifiable control of the chemical weapons present in Syria as soon as possible."

France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is due in Moscow next Tuesday to discuss the issue with Lavrov and may visit Beijing on Monday for talks with the Chinese government, which has been non-committal on France's draft resolution.

In a televised address to the American people on Tuesday night, Obama laid a path towards a possible diplomatic resolution to the impasse, He pledged to work directly but insisted military strikes remained a possibility.

However in what were his most dovish remarks since his administration began briefing two weeks ago that a strike was imminent, Obama said he would wait for the United Nations inspectors to complete their report on the 21 August chemical attacks outside Damascus before taking further action. He said there were "encouraging signs" of a political resolution.

In London, officials revealed that Britain approved the export to Syria of more chemicals that could be used to make sarin, a powerful nerve agent, than had previously been acknowledged.

Five export licences were approved for the sale of more than 4,000kg of sodium fluoride between 2004 and 2010. They were on top of exports approved last year of sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride under licences but subsequently revoked on the grounds they could be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of weapons.

The five licences were revealed by Vince Cable, the business secretary, in a letter to Sir Robert Stanley, chairman of the Commons committee on export controls.

***********

Aleppo rebels angry as diplomacy seems to let Assad off the hook

Syria insurgents, including Liwa Tawheed brigade, despondent as US steps back and European allies appear to abandon them

Martin Chulov in Aleppo
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 September 2013 19.29 BST   

In the basement of a bombed-out police station, a group of Syrian rebels were sheltering from a fighter jet roaring through the twilight sky. But no one was watching the jet. Instead the men were transfixed by a television that blared news of the latest wrangling over whether a US attack would be launched against Bashar al-Assad. Even the sound of the aircraft's firing cannon was dismissed with a mocking cheer.

"Wait till there's a real air force up there," said a young defector who had fought with the rebels of northern Syria for the past year. "The regime will be far more scared of the Americans than we are of them."

That was late last week. By early Wednesday, however, the rebels' mood had changed radically. "We should have known better than to believe them," the group's commander told the Guardian despondently.

News that a mooted attack on the Assad regime had been put on hold and replaced with a diplomatic push has been met with despair and, in some cases, anger in and around Aleppo, where a grinding, gruelling war of attrition has become a way of life.

Battered by bombs, Scud missiles and the tank shells that thump randomly into buildings most days, Aleppo's stone heart has steadily crumbled. So too have the concrete suburbs of the east, which giant missiles have emptied of people. Newly arrived jihadists have added to the misery, splintering a cause that locals believe is theirs alone to fight and trying to turn the Syrian civil war into an arena for the settling of ancient scores.

Throughout it all, though, the rebels of the north held out hope that real help would arrive some time. "We were depending on this," said Sheikh Omar Otthman, a leader of the Liwa al-Tawheed brigade, the main opposition militia in Aleppo, of the now uncertain international intervention. "The suffering of the people of Ghouta could have created an opportunity for all our suffering to be lifted."

Every twist in the fast-shifting international response to the chemical attack in eastern Damascus three weeks ago has been eagerly digested in opposition communities here. But the latest has convinced many that, despite the fuss, no one had been serious about helping them.

"They've spent the past two weeks saying Bashar is a liar and must be punished and that he needs to know that he can't get away with what he does," said Abu Hamza, a former colonel in the Syrian military who became a central figure in the war for the north soon after it began.

"And then they give him a chance to do more of what he has always done, get away with murder. He will stall them, trick them and wear them down. And they will send the ships home. And we'll be left alone."

In the town of al-Bab, a hub of the opposition to the north-east of Aleppo, phones have not worked for almost a year and electricity can be off for days. The town's unswept streets, which are now home to a growing number of black-robed extremists, echo to the sound of generators and clapped-out motorbikes.

"We want to chase them out, but we need the Americans to help us," said Tawfik Merza of the aloof strangers among them. "They are not from us, and they're not for us."

The standoff with the extremists is an unwanted distraction in al-Bab, which continues to be hit with the full range of the Syrian military's arsenal – except for chemicals.

In the early hours of Sunday, a large ballistic missile struck farmland north-east of Aleppo, the first for several months and a pointed reminder that a powerful enemy was still out there. The impact was soon followed by the roar of a fighter jet above the blacked-out town. The next day, Liwa al-Tawheed leaders and cadres stood among fig trees not far from where the missile landed, excitedly plucking fruit, their rifles resting against tree trunks. One fighter offered up a peeled fig. "They're the best fruit you can eat," he said. "Delicious, and healthy. Even in war there is still good."

Another fighter, Abu Hamza, said the missile showed Bashar was still in control. "It shows he is still making decisions. There are three pillars of the Syrian military that we knew to be their strategic assets. The first was the use of the air force, the second was the ballistic missiles, and the third was the chemical weapons. To use any of those things, the permission must come from the commander-in-chief."

Few military commanders or civic leaders here doubt that the Syrian president still has control over his military chiefs. To those running the war here, he also holds sway over a reluctant US and Europe that is proving itself pliable in the hands of Syria's allies.

"Don't they know that to negotiate after threatening force is to show that you are weak?" said Abu Tayeb, a member of the governing council of one of the area's main militias.

To some, however – those who hang on to hope that the Russian-backed proposal to force Syria to give up its stockpile is a ploy to build further consensus to attack – the recent developments do not let the regime off the hook.

"He has surrendered before a shot has been fired," said one senior supporter of the Syrian opposition. "If he carries through with this promise to give up his weapons, he is handing over the most important strategic deterrent that he has. He has always been able to keep the Israelis at bay with the threat of these things. And if he tries to delay, or play games, he will get hit.

"It will be easier for Europe to fall in behind Obama if they can see that he is not acting in good faith, which he won't be."

In al-Bab, the tension has at times been unbearable for locals who had early on coveted help from powerful backers, then given up on intervention, only to see it re-emerge as what seemed to be a real option.

"I'll need to see a doctor after all of this," said Abdullah Namoud, a local from the town. "It is worse than a Turkish TV drama, all these twists and changes."

The militias of the north had been preparing for a military operation to coincide with the mooted US attack, which they saw as the first chance they had to advance under air cover.

There had even been a sense among leaders of the northern militias, those that fall under the auspices of the Military Council, which funnels weapons into Syria, that they were expected to seize the moment, if and when the US rockets fell.

Now, with the US effectively having stood down, the palpable hope has been replaced by a sense of confusion.

"I've said from the beginning that this was about the Americans saving their reputation, not about helping us," said a member of the governing council. "That's politics, we know that. But our reality is that nothing will change for us. They're helping themselves, not us."

************

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
09/11/2013 03:46 PM

World from Berlin: 'The West's Zig-Zagging Is Astounding'

US President Obama announced Tuesday night he would postpone military intervention in Syria in favor of diplomatic measures. But such waffling is shameful and the US would be foolish to trust Russia's plan, German commentators say on Wednesday.

The speech was originally conceived as a call to arms. But in a televised address on Tuesday evening, United States President Barack Obama said he will hold off on military action in Syria and pursue diplomatic measures instead. As his constituents at home and his allies and enemies abroad looked on, Obama said he had agreed to a Russian proposal for international monitors to confiscate and destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. The president said he had asked Congress to postpone a vote authorizing the use of force, adding, however, that he had ordered the US military to "be in a position to respond" if diplomatic efforts failed.

The American president also continued to argue his case for a military response to Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad's reported deployment of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. "The images from this massacre are sickening," he said. "Sometimes, resolutions and statements of condemnation are not enough.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged the profound reluctance of Americans to get behind another foreign military engagement with the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan still so fresh.

Also behind Obama's about-face is his failure to rally sufficient international support for a military operation. Although 25 countries signed on to the US-penned joint statement on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg urging a "clear and strong response" in Syria, only France appeared willing to participate in an American-led offensive without a United Nations mandate.

The UN released a report on Wednesday confirming at least eight massacres have been perpetrated in Syria by Assad's regime and supporters, and one by the rebels over the past year and a half, but it stopped short of verifying Assad's responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which the Syrian dictator vehemently denies orchestrating.

Russia's Plan B

President Obama said he welcomed the Russian plan as an alternative to military intervention, but added, "It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed." Critics of the proposal argue that Moscow's refusal to include any threat of military force in the deal with Syria or to assess blame for the poison gas attack renders the maneuver ineffectual.

What's being referred to as Plan B was set into motion by an ostensibly throw-away comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Monday, in which he said that Assad's only chance to prevent a US military strike was to "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week." Russia and Syria embraced the idea, which quickly gained traction in the diplomatic community.

Obama spoke by telephone on Tuesday with French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. All three agreed to work together with Russia and China toward a diplomatic solution. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that France would put a resolution to the UN Security Council to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control and begin the dismantling process. The measure is largely an attempt to make sure the Russian plan is not used as a stalling tactic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, like many in the international community, is likely breathing a sigh of relief. The chancellor, who is currently in the midst of a re-election campaign, has already taken heat for her delay in signing onto the G-20 joint statement, something that was depicted as a diplomatic blunder. Now that Obama has retreated, she is likely spared the necessity of taking a firm position on intervention in Syria -- at least until after the Sept. 22 election.

The German press on Wednesday criticized not only the American President, but the larger diplomatic community in the West, for its erratic behavior "in the face of mass suffering." Conservative Die Welt was not the only outlet to intimate that Obama had been outmaneuvered by Russian President Pig Putin and Assad. While opinions were mixed over whether American military intervention in Syria is presently the right move, there was general agreement that the Russian plan is unlikely to have the desired effect.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"If what is being referred to as 'Plan B' does end up becoming a reality, it has many advantages. The US would not execute an unsanctioned military strike against Damascus ... Obama would avoid the humiliation of being held back by his own Congress. He would even be able to appropriately argue that without the threat of intervention, the Syrian leader would never have budged on the topic of chemical weapons."

"Is a happy ending likely in this Greek tragedy? Certainly not. It remains completely uncertain whether 'Plan B' can be implemented at all. Yes, after a long period of denial, Assad has finally admitted to the existence of chemical weapons in Syria … There is a danger that Assad and Putin are only buying time, and that they will postpone the initiative by engaging in countless debates about draft resolutions and the conditions of inspection."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The zig-zagging on display from the international community, and particularly here in the West, when it comes to Syria is astounding. That wouldn't be so bad -- finding a peaceful solution to this increasingly brutal conflict is worth every effort -- except that the waffling is driven by pure cynicism."

"Particularly outrageous is the way US Secretary of State John Kerry inadvertently hinted during a press conference at the idea of Assad handing over his chemical weapons, only to withdraw the suggestion as being not seriously meant, only for his president to then seize on the proposal. The incident made it crystal clear to all that many Western capitals have still not decided how far they want to go on the Syria question and that everything thus far has been nothing but unscrupulous maneuvering -- and that in the face of mass suffering."

Left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The fact that the United States and Russia are moving closer will not prevent the Assad regime from committing murders. Contrary to what many headlines are claiming, the problem in Syria is not the fact that 1,400 people died in one night as a result of a poison gas attack. The problem is that Syria has been using conventional, internationally accepted weapons against its own people on a daily basis for two-and-a-half years. The 1,400 poison gas victims are 'only' the tip of the iceberg."

"The danger seems to be averted: Bashar Assad has officially agreed to give over his chemical weapons arsenal to international control. Many new rounds of negotiations are kicking off. Meanwhile Assad's army and militias that support him can continue to follow the principle of scorched earth. Perhaps even more undisturbed than before, because Assad's official concession allows him to play the part of an internationally recognized interlocutor."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Syria's President Bashar Assad is a master in the game of deception and tactical baiting, and Russian President Pig Putin knows how to look into the cameras innocently to once again disarm the West's attempt at a forceful response to Syrian war crimes. Just last year, the Americans suggested that Moscow confiscate Syria's weapons of mass destruction … in vain. The consequences are well known. Syria deployed chemical weapons. Over 1,000 people died and more than two million have fled."

"So one is well advised to be wary of Syrian assurances they will clear their poison gas stockpiles."

Mass-circulation daily Bild writes:

"Dear Barack Obama, you are the most powerful person in the world. Why not bring all of this to an end in a flash? The push of a button. Drones. The most powerful man in the world could destroy this evil. What irritates me is that he does not dispute the evil. Red line -- that was the phrase. Your red line has become soft. In summary, I can say: You are a wimp."

"You were a social organizer. You enraptured millions with, 'Yes, we can!' America is the world's policeman. America defends global values. Well, Barack Obama is a weak cop. He is too nice. He's a good family man. His problem is that he doesn't get out the baseball bat -- against evil."


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« Reply #8661 on: Sep 12, 2013, 06:42 AM »


Black Mauritanians suffer 'slavery-like' conditions, says UN

Generations of Africans face incestuous rape and discrimination in country that is west's ally against al-Qaida, says rights expert

Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 10.30 BST   

Black Mauritanians are still subject to slavery-like practices, including sexual violence and discrimination, a UN human rights expert has said.

The UN special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, told the Guardian that generations of people, particularly women and girls, were still living with families in a "slavery-like" relationship, and were being forced into sex with male relatives, in some cases with their fathers.

"You have situations where people still live with and are working for certain families, and where women are forced to have sexual relations with family members – fathers and sons," said Ruteere, speaking from Kenya. "And there are situations where children, particularly the girls who are the products of those relations, are then forced to have sexual relations with the same family members."

"This kind of relationship is going on over generations. There is a lot of sexual violence against these women and girls, I met individuals who are subjected to this. It's a situation that is slavery-like."

The comments by the Kenyan human rights veteran are among the most outspoken condemnation of events in Mauritania by the international community in recent years.

A predominantly Muslim former French colony on the western coast of the Sahara desert, Mauritania is seen by western powers as an important ally in the fight against terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which have been active in the country, crossing porous desert borders with neighbouring Mali.

Critics say Mauritania's geopolitical role has led to human rights violations being overlooked in the nation, which is divided between Arab-Berber and black African ethnic groups, some of whom were traditionally enslaved. Enslavement was not made a criminal offence in Mauritania until 2007, after years of official denials that the practice still existed.

Anti-slavery groups claim they are regularly harassed by the authorities, and one organisation said that during Ruteere's visit to Kaédi, a town in southern Mauritania, it was obstructed from introducing victims of slavery to the UN delegation.

"We went to Kaédi to accompany the rapporteur and to introduce him to victims of slavery so that he could see for himself," said Balla Touré, spokesperson for the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism in Mauritania (IRA-Mauritania).

"The authorities blocked us from hotel rooms we had reserved at the hotel in Kaédi so that we could meet with Mr Ruteere. We were refused access to our rooms. Government officials also prepared false victims for him to meet with, who told him that things have really changed and that Mauritania is no longer racist. These things are completely false.

"And officials physically tried to prevent real victims from entering the room to meet with the rapporteur. They vetted each one, and told some they could enter, and others they could not."

The Mauritanian government did not respond when asked about the IRA's allegations, but denied that slavery exists or that it had harassed anti-slavery campaigners.

It said it had strengthened legal and institutional protection against slavery and racism, including the enactment of the 2007 law, and by co-operating with the UN human rights system, establishing a national human rights commission, and amending the constitution to acknowledge Mauritania's ethno-cultural diversity.

But civil rights groups say slavery and racial discrimination are still entrenched in Mauritania and accuse the government of a cover-up. They point to cases such as that of Omar Djibi Sow, 45, who escaped in July after 40 years of slavery, during which he was made to herd camels for his "master".

The Guardian has seen details of two further cases pending before the courts, including one in which a former colonel is accused of enslaving a woman and her son, subjecting them to "psychological pain" and "inhuman and immoral practices".

In another case, a man and his son admitted to enslaving a woman and nine of her children, saying that they had inherited the family.

"These are sad stories that are common in Mauritania," said anti-slavery activist Saidou Wane. "To say slavery in Mauritania is over is just a lie. There are cases pending in the courts, and groups like the IRA are constantly finding new examples of slavery.

"If slavery ended, and the government has nothing to hide, then why doesn't it allow a proper investigation? Why does it harass groups like the IRA which are doing just that?"

Although Ruteere praised the 2007 law for criminalising the practice of slavery, he agreed that the courts were not delivering justice for black Mauritanians.

"There are several cases that have been brought by individuals who are living under slavery-like conditions, and either the cases took too long, or the sentences are too light, the individuals are being released after a short time even after a conviction," said Ruteere. "People feel that the justice system is not working for the victims."

It is not the first time the UN has made damning findings against the Mauritanian authorities on racism.

In 2009, UN special rapporteur on slavery Gulnara Shahinian also visited Mauritania and reported having met victims of the practice.

"Even though the UN acknowledges 'slavery-like practices', it is frustrating that they will not come out and just speak the truth, that slavery exists in Mauritania," said Wane. "No one wants to upset the government, everybody is being politically correct. But the people know what is really happening, and little by little they are starting to rise up against it."


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« Reply #8662 on: Sep 12, 2013, 06:50 AM »


Catalans join hands in huge human chain for independence from Spain

Via Catalana stretches from French border to Valencia as thousands send message to Madrid on Catalan National Day

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona and Paul Hamilos in Madrid
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 September 2013 18.46 BST   

Link to video: Catalans join hands and reach for the sky in show of unity and defiance

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/sep/12/catalans-join-hands-unity-defiance-video

Hundreds of thousands of Catalonians joined hands to form a human chain 250 miles (400km) long, running from the border with neighbouring France to the region of Valencia in a call for Madrid to recognise Catalan independence.

Wednesday, was la Diada, or Catalan National Day, when the region commemorates the defeat of its troops in the Spanish war of succession in 1714. And at 5.14pm the human chain – or Via Catalana – linked arms.

"I'm joining the Via Catalana because I think we should be consulted on our future. I think the rise of the independence movement comes from the people while the politicians prefer stagnation to change," said Maria Solé Bundó, who works on the family farm in Baix Penedès.

Núria Ruiz Soto, a hospital worker from Tarragona, said: "I've joined the Via because I think it's a good way of drawing attention to our desire to be an independent state and if they're not willing to listen to us, at least they can see us."

Independence has been a long-running battle between Catalonia and Madrid, but as the recession continues to hit the country harder, demands for a referendum on secession have grown, and the National Assembly of Catalonia called on its supporters to take to the streets to show their strength. Polls suggest as many as 50% of Catalans want independence, and up to 81% support the right to hold a referendum.

The view from Madrid, where prime minister Mariano Rajoy is that any independence referendum would be illegal.

Catalan president Artur Mas has said he would use elections scheduled for 2016 as an effective referendum on independence The National Assembly of Catalonia argues they should not have to wait that long, calling for a referendum in 2014.


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« Reply #8663 on: Sep 12, 2013, 06:51 AM »


Meet Joan Baldoví, Spain's most direct democrat

In a radical experiment, one politician is asking people what they think about a new transparency bill, and voting accordingly

Paul Hamilos in Madrid
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 September 2013 16.34 BST

When Joan Baldoví heads into parliament on Thursday to vote on Spain's new transparency bill he, like most politicians, will claim to have the thoughts and needs of his constituents at the forefront of his mind.

But Baldoví will know better than most what his voters actually want, thanks to a radical experiment in direct democracy.

Baldoví, an MP with the Spanish green party Compromís-Equo, has asked voters to sign up to an online platform that allows them to tell him what they think about the new law, and has promised to vote according to the majority opinion.

Baldoví says the idea dawned on him during an online discussion with a group of young voters.

"[They] asked if they could vote on my behalf," he said. "We thought about it afterwards and decided to try it with the transparency bill."

The new legislation has come to symbolise many of the problems the Spanish public has with its political system. Spain is one of the least open governments in the developed world, and one of only three in Europe, along with Cyprus and Luxembourg, to lack proper freedom of information laws.

The governing rightwing People's party has been beset by corruption scandals, including alleged illegal payments to its most senior leaders. The transparency bill is seen as an attempt to offset the political damage these have caused.

First mooted in 2004 under the previous, leftwing PSOE government, the bill fails to go far enough, its critics say, in its aim to tighten regulation of politicians' and public employees' tax declarations, financial assets and private activities.

Baldoví – who once stripped off his shirt and tie in a debate over banking, and clearly sees himself as a man of the people – hopes Thursday's political experiment will "open the voters' eyes to another way of practising democracy, and bring them closer to their politicians".

He said: "We want them to share in the democratic process and return the vote that they gave to us back to them. Voting does not have to be something you do only every four years."

The online direct democracy platform has been designed by the developers behind Agora Voting, a free software project designed to encourage open government. Once you have proved your identity by scanning in a copy of your national identity card you can vote on various elements of the proposed bill.

Baldoví said 2,000 people had taken part, as of midday on Wednesday, but he expected the final number of participants to be much larger.

As Baldoví's party is not in government, his vote is unlikely to change the course of the transparency bill. But, according to Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, a political analyst and professor of communications at the University of Navarra, the concept deserves attention.

"It responds to the need to offer new forms of citizen participation at a time of a profound breakdown in the confidence in political institutions," he said.

Victoria Anderica, of the freedom of information campaigning group Access Info Europe, also believes there is much to be learned from Baldoví's initiative. "Using it with the transparency bill was a very smart move because people know the subject," she said. "There has been a lot of political debate around it since it was first introduced, so people understand the various arguments."


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« Reply #8664 on: Sep 12, 2013, 06:55 AM »


In a post 9/11 world, the European Union needs a terrorism taskforce

The EU needs new and inventive procedures to detect, identify and unmask the ever-adapting organism of global terrorism

Miroslav Lajčák   
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 September 2013 16.00 BST          

It is depressing how quickly human behaviour can change. When in 2001 two planes hit the twin towers in New York, the whole world remained glued to the TV screens for hours, eagerly gulping down every word uttered by the ground zero reporters. Yet when an Iraqi suicide bomber detonates his device these days, most of us switch channels to something "more juicy". Terrorism has become a part of our everyday lives. Unless, of course, the bomb goes off in our own backyard.

This summer, terrorists hit my country, Slovakia, twice: first in Pakistan, when a group of militants executed two of our mountaineers. Then, a couple of days later in Afghanistan, when a local army trainee named Lamber Khan shot one and seriously injured two other members of the Slovak contingent to the international security assistance force (Isaf) mission. We have been handed a hard lesson on how terrorism does not care for nationality, citizenship, religion or the colour of one's skin.

How did we respond? By calling on the authorities to catch the perpetrators; by appealing to the local powers to investigate the crimes; by trusting their assurances that justice will be served. And yet I keep wondering: when in 1988, the Scottish town of Lockerbie was devastated by the terrorist bombing of the Pan Am flight 103 that killed 270 people, it took 13 years for an ex-minister of the Libyan government to state that Muammar Gaddafi ordered the bombing. As for 9/11, even after 12 years, doubts still remain whether it was Osama bin Laden who ordered the strike, or whether it might have been someone else. If we accept this mathematical progression, how long will it take for the culprits of the two terrorist acts that have shaken my country to be brought to justice? Five years? 10? 20? And what can we do about it?

Since the Lockerbie tragedy, 25 years ago and since the terrorist attacks on New York in September 2001, the face of terrorism has undergone a dramatic change – a plastic surgery of sorts: hijacked aircraft went out of fashion and were replaced by kamikaze zealots wired with plastic explosives, and by shots fired from ambush.

The world community responds predictably: diplomacy, sanctions, supporting the internal dissent in the terrorist "safe haven" countries, eventually ordering special military units to deploy and retaliate. In other words: we do not, as yet, have an adequate response mechanism, an ability to eliminate the threat of terrorism the way decisive steps undertaken by the British SAS, the German GSG-9 and other units succeeded in reducing the number of cases involving hijacked aircraft to almost nil.

So here is what I propose: how about we create a terrorism taskforce (TTF) as an EU strategic thinktank/analytical centre – a tool similar to that used on a national level by the US or the UK? Its task, as opposed to the Europol "muscle" counter-terrorism force, would be in putting more thought behind the action, in enforcing the PPPR rule (prevention, protection, pursuit and response), in keeping pace with the ever-adapting organism of international terrorism networks, in employing new and inventive procedures to detect, identify and unmask hatching terrorism schemes, collecting relevant human source intelligence (Humint) and yes, taking maximum advantage of the so massively scandalised and criticised electronic intelligence (Elint).

Slovakia stands ready to deploy its experts to such a taskforce, should it become the order of the day. To put it plainly: I truly believe we need new tools to counter old threats. TTF could be such a tool.


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« Reply #8665 on: Sep 12, 2013, 06:57 AM »


European Commission should be democracy watchdog for EU, chief says

José Manuel Barroso says he will unveil plans to allow commission to police EU states, before laying into British Tories

Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 September 2013 15.08 BST   

The European Commission should be given new punitive powers to police democratic rights in the 28 countries of the EU, the commission chief has said.

In a speech that argued that Europe was emerging in much stronger shape from the currency and sovereign debt crisis of the past three years, José Manuel Barroso told the European parliament in Strasbourg that he would soon unveil proposals turning the commission into a democracy watchdog empowered to penalise rights abuses.

The proposal is certain to run into opposition from national governments, although it is supported by Germany.

"Experience has confirmed the usefulness of the commission role as an independent and objective referee. We should consolidate this experience through a more general framework. It should be based on the principle of equality between member states, activated only in situations where there is a serious, systemic risk to the rule of law, and triggered by pre-defined benchmarks," Barroso said. "It is a debate that is key to our idea of Europe."

The idea that Brussels be empowered to police democracy in the various countries and punish misdemeanours by, for example, taking away national governments' voting rights in EU councils – what Barroso dubbed the "nuclear option" – has been reinforced by developments in Hungary and Romania over the past year where the governments have clashed with Brussels and the Council of Europe human rights watchdog (not an EU body) over perceived abuses of democratic rights.

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, has also called for "new mechanisms" in the EU to deal with the problem and welcomed Barroso's remarks.

"We need a political mechanism within the existing treaties to counter possible bad developments in certain member states effectively and in good time. It is positive that the commission has taken up our initiative," Westerwelle said.

A Portuguese MEP, reporting on democracy developments in Hungary under its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, recently called for a special committee to be formed to monitor and scrutinise policy moves in Budapest. Barroso's proposal would not single out any specific countries but would apply to all.

"This does not mean that national sovereignty or democracy are constrained. But we do need a robust European mechanism to influence the equation when basic common principles are at stake," said Barroso. "There are certain non-negotiable values that the EU and its member states must and shall always defend."

Going into the last year of his decade as president of the commission, Barroso also rounded on Britain's Conservative party, saying that it risked making itself unelectable by opting for euro-scepticism and that it was haemorrhaging support to the UK Independence Party.

In a clash following the setpiece speech known as "the state of the European Union", Barroso turned on the Tory leader in the chamber, Martin Callanan.

In a robust exchange, unusual for the former Portuguese prime minister, Barroso told Callanan that the Tories were marginalising themselves in Europe.

"Increasingly your party is looking like Ukip," Barroso told Callanan. "Ukip may finish first in Britain," he added, referring to the European elections next May and declaring that it would be impossible for a British Conservative to replace him as head of the commission when the post is filled in November next year. He accused the Tories of turning into a Ukip clone and predicted that voters would opt for the real thing and not the copy.

The leader of the Conservative MEPs ridiculed Barroso's criticism. "Thank you to Mr Barroso for his unsolicited electoral advice, which is a bit rich coming from an unelected bureaucrat."


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« Reply #8666 on: Sep 12, 2013, 07:00 AM »


US and UK accused of 'squeezing life out of' Ascension Island

Britain denies uprooting families living on tiny mid-Atlantic island to make way for American military base

Fred Pearce on Ascension Island
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 September 2013 16.25 BST   

The British government is accused of presiding over the emptying of the remote colonial outpost of Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, uprooting families that have lived there for almost a century. Local people claim the UK is engaged in a slow-motion repeat of its widely condemned expulsion of the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Ascension Island is a tiny leftover of empire, a volcanic island 700 miles from anywhere. It is dominated by a US military airbase, which more than 100 aircraft passed through on security duties during Barack Obama's recent trip to Africa. There are satellite and submarine tracking stations, a BBC transmitter, and a listening post run by GCHQ's Composite Signals Organisation.

Its resident population – most of them originally from St Helena, another British South Atlantic island – has fallen by a quarter in a decade to less than 800, as the companies that now run most military and civilian services replace settled family communities with contract workers. Local people say the island now has more antennas than people.

Caroline Yon, a former island councillor whose day job is running a European Space Agency tracking station, said: "The US and UK are squeezing the life out of the place. They want to make Ascension like Diego Garcia." Britain expelled the population of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean 40 years ago to make way for a US airbase.

A shopkeeper, Cedric Henry, said: "It's like being on an oil rig now. We have no rights. We are just a workforce, even though many people have never lived anywhere else. Some families have been here for four generations."

The issue is expected to come to a head in elections later this year for the island council – a purely advisory body that is the island's only semblance of democracy after 198 years of British rule.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. A decade ago, in the heyday of Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy", Britain promised a new deal for the residents. It drew up plans for democratic institutions, a legal right of abode and to own property. "We want to ensure that Ascension continues to be a viable community," said the island's then administrator, Andrew Kettlewell.

The new island council planned to develop eco-tourism. The only downside was the introduction of taxes.

Then in 2006, Cook's successor, Jack Straw, committed what the island's administrator, Colin Wells, admits was a "spectacular U-turn". The promises were all abandoned, though not the taxes.

With no right of abode, anyone who retires or reaches 18 without a job, or whose contract ends, has to leave. Businesses set up during the "Ascension spring" have lost their value because they cannot be sold and have no secure land tenure.

Over afternoon tea in the garden of his official residence, guarded by ceremonial cannons, Wells denied local claims that Whitehall was forced into the about-face on right of abode by American security fears about potentially troublesome neighbours. Ministers wanted to avoid "contingent liabilities" such as providing pensions, unemployment pay and beefed up security, he said. "It was a necessary U-turn."

But many St Helenians, known on the island as "Saints", feel frozen out, said the island's internationally regarded conservation officer, Stedson Stroud, himself a Saint. They have been losing professional jobs, such as teaching at the island's only school, to Britons on short contracts. Stroud, who retires soon, fears he will be replaced by a young British scientist rather than his able local deputy.

Stroud added that British activities had left the island without its own natural produce. "Since the farm on the island closed, all the food is imported. Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables are handouts from the US base."

Last month, a former Ascension councillor, Lawson Henry, who returned to St Helena in disgust at the British U-turn, said Saints forced back were discriminated against twice over by the British authorities, because they got no pension on St Helena. "A person must work on St Helena for a minimum of 20 years [to qualify]. This effectively cuts out all those St Helenians who have worked on Ascension for all or most of their working lives."

The Saints are mixed-race descendants of European colonists and the African slaves and Asian labourers brought to St Helena to work on flax plantations to make mailbags for the Post Office. They began moving to Ascension in the 1920s to work in short-lived guano mines. They now feel surplus to requirements, an unwanted legacy of empire.

The biggest cause of Ascension's recent depopulation, said Yon, was the privatisation of most government and military services on the island.

The British contractor Interserve is now the island's biggest employer. Jobs are being shed and workers moved on to short-term contracts. Families now only accompany workers if that is essential to fill positions, say officials. The headteacher was allowed to bring his wife and two children from Britain.

The result is that "the population is shrinking to a critical mass", said Yon. The school could be an early casualty. It has about 100 pupils, educated up to 16 years, but Wells said a roll anywhere below 75 would be unviable. The loss of families means that three-quarters of the population is now male. Sexual exploitation of the remaining teenage girls is becoming a serious problem, said Yon.

Since 2006, in response to questions about the rights of islanders, ministers have insisted that "there is no indigenous population, or 'islanders'", Wells said: "On Ascension, everyone is an expat, present by virtue of an employment contract."

Stroud said many Saints believed Britain planned to abandon Ascension, evacuate the resident Saints, and leave it to the Americans – "perhaps when the airport is completed on St Helena in 2016". That would give the RAF an alternative refuelling stop en route to the Falkland Islands.

Wells denied this and rejected the comparison to Diego Garcia. "The British Indian Ocean territory and Ascension remain very different," he said.

But the promise of a decade ago that the residents of Ascension could forge a permanent presence on the island is becoming a distant dream.


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« Reply #8667 on: Sep 12, 2013, 07:01 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
09/12/2013 12:17 PM

Bailout Nr. 5?: Euro Zone Eyes Slovenia's Troubled Banks

The euro crisis has been on the back burner lately, but the problems facing banks in Slovenia are coming to a head. Billions of euros in bad loans make the country a candidate for the next bailout.

Euro zone finance ministers are reportedly considering whether Slovenia may need outside aid to shore up its banking system. The German business daily Handelsblatt reports on Thursday that the Eurogroup is due to discuss the country at its next meeting on Friday.

Slovenian Finance Minister Uros Cufer is expected to report to his euro-zone counterparts on the country's financial situation, which has been deteriorating over the past several months. The country is in recession, and is still struggling to bring its budget deficit in line with the EU-mandated maximum of 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav republic to join NATO and the EU, and was once hailed as a model for other former socialist European democracies seeking to establish competitive economies. But its rising standard of living appears to have been built in part on bad credit.

The Slovenian government last week announced it would liquidate two small private banks, Factor Banka and Probanka, and would put up €1.3 billion to guarantee the banks' liabilities. The central bank governor said the measures were to help avoid a run on the country's other banks.

'Emergency Liquidity'

The two financial institutions account for only 4.4 percent of the country's total bank assets. But observers believe the problem could be much more widespread, with bad loans in the entire Slovenian banking sector totaling more than €7 billion.

Handelsblatt also cited unnamed sources in the euro zone as saying the European Central Bank would likely have to grant Slovenian banks "emergency liquidity assistance" (ELA) -- something Cypriot banks received in great quantities in the run-up to that country's sovereign bailout announced in March.

The government in Ljubljana desperately wants to avoid becoming the fifth euro-zone country to accept an international bailout of state finances. The four countries that have already done so -- Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus -- have been forced to push through draconian budget cuts and tax hikes that have faced fierce resistance from voters. Spain also received emergency loans from the EU for its banking system, but avoided a full government bailout.


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« Reply #8668 on: Sep 12, 2013, 07:03 AM »

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09/11/2013 03:26 PM

Bunga Bungle: Berlusconi Holds Italy for Ransom

By Fabian Reinbold

As lawmakers debate barring Berlusconi from office, the former prime minister and his supporters threaten to scuttle Italy's governing coalition. The convicted tax evader refuses to be treated like a common criminal.

This week it once again seemed like Silvio Berlusconi's fate would be sealed. But that turned out not to be the case: 23 Italian senators spent six hours discussing and threatening one another -- before adjourning until late Tuesday evening. That meeting also ended without a vote.

The hearings, which are reportedly set to resume on Thursday at 9 a.m., are supposed to determine whether the former prime minister will lose his political office after being decisively found guilty of tax fraud. The law states Berlusconi must go, but the law, at this point, has become a side issue.

Berlusconi himself is in a state of perpetual outrage. He recently spoke of "attempted political assassination," and on Monday made a statement that pointed to what this Italian farce is actually about. "They are treating me," he said, appalled, "like a common criminal."

About one month ago, after dozens of trials, Italy's four-time head of government was finally, decisively found guilty by Italy's highest court. The verdict called for four years of jail for tax fraud. And even if Berlusconi only has to serve one year of house arrest or do community service, Italian law calls for him to give up his seat in the senate and with it, his immunity. But Berlusconi and his party are fighting against this with all means at their disposal -- they want special rules. Once again, Italy's legal system is getting a bad name.

'Whose Fault Is It If the Boat Sinks?'

On Aug. 1, when the head judge of Italy's highest court delivered his verdict against Berlusconi, there was a saying carved above him in wood: All are equal before the law. Recent events suggest this only partly applies to Berlusconi.

Since the "Severino law" passed in 2012, anyone who has been sentenced to more than two years of jail must lose his or her position in political office. This means that, although Berlusconi's jail term still needs to be negotiated, he is barred from office. The Italian reality, however, is as follows: Berlusconi and his party want to use all methods at their disposal, including threats, to prevent "Il Cavaliere" from being removed. On Tuesday, his party's group leader said, in parliament, "If Berlusconi loses his office, the government will fall."

The decision about Berlusconi's future will be made by a parliamentary committee of 23 lawmakers: Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Democratic Party wants to apply the law, Berlusconi's People of Freedom party does not (even though it supported passing it). The problem: Both are together in a grand coalition, and, because of the Berlusconi affair, that coalition has been close to collapsing for weeks. Letta has spoken of "permanent political chaos" that needs to be stopped.

The political tug of war has already dominated Italy's summer silly season. Berlusconi has stated almost every day that he is innocent and will not give up. Airplane banners calling for "freedom for Silvio" have flown above Italian beaches. If Berlusconi has to step down, his most loyal followers see it as an end to democracy.

Their concern is always Berlusconi's "political agility" -- a worry that apparently stands above all others. Il Cavaliere has threatened his coalition partners by saying, "If two friends sit in a boat and the one throws the other overboard, whose fault is it if the boat sinks?"

Constant Brinkmanship

Italian media are in a constant state of alarm. Every week there are new headlines claiming the government is about to collapse, for real this time. What gets lost is the fact that the threat of collapse is likely a hollow one. If the former prime minister's party were actually to leave the government, Il Cavaliere would no longer be able to keep calling the shots. It's totally unclear how a new election would turn out.

The Berlusconi camp's strategy for now is to cause delays. This weekend, his lawyers even petitioned the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and then claimed that, until the Strasbourg court had reached a decision, the proceedings in the Senate would have to wait.

A large portion of Italians distrust the legal system. While Berlusconi's followers describe the proceedings and the verdict as persecution by left-leaning judges, others simply shake their heads at what they see as a politicized judiciary. A final decision about Berlusconi's future could be delayed until as late as mid-October, when a court in Milan is to decide about the length of the political-office ban.

Before then, Berlusconi needs to decide how he wants to serve his sentence. According to reports by Milanese newspaper Corriere della sera, Berlusconi's lawyer, Franco Coppi, made it clear to the former prime minister that he needs to declare by Oct. 15 if he wants to perform community service. Otherwise he will automatically end up under house arrest.

"How is that possible?", Berlusconi is to have responded. Coppi then had to remind him, "It's possible because you have been definitively sentenced." Only an appeal for clemency to the president could potentially spare Berlusconi, but that would first require him to acknowledge his own guilt.


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« Reply #8669 on: Sep 12, 2013, 07:08 AM »

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09/11/2013 03:56 PM

Dodging the Issues: Merkel Campaign Driven by Fear of Voters

By René Pfister

The German campaign is in full swing, but Chancellor Angela Merkel is carefully avoiding controversial issues. Her stump message focuses entirely on her person and gives short shrift to her plans for Germany's future. Her only platform is her popularity.

It's a terribly hot July day, the sun blazing. But scorching or not, the campaign must go on. Today's event is taking place in Zingst, a Baltic Sea resort on the Darss Peninsula, where about 1,000 people have gathered at an outdoor stage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is about to give a speech, but first on the agenda is a bit of small talk. Merkel's party, the CDU, has hired Jan Stecker, the tanned host of a car show on cable TV, to serve as MC. And Stecker wants to know which opera Merkel intends to see at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth this year.

Merkel hesitates for a moment as she gazes at the crowd. She sees men in tank tops and sandals, dripping ice cream cones and people holding up their mobile phones to snap her picture. What she doesn't see are people with an appreciation for the mystical tones of Richard Wagner's music.

Merkel, determined not to seem elitist, says: "I'm not sure if that's of any interest here." Realizing that this also sounds a little too pretentious, she adds that "The Flying Dutchman" is on this year's program, which seems a good fit for the event here in Zingst, with the waves rolling up onto the beach and the wind blowing in from the sea.

With just days to go before the election, downplaying problems and protecting the electorate are tops on Merkel's priority list. Indeed, though Sept. 22 is just around the corner, there is still surprisingly little to indicate that Germany will hold a national election on that day. And that is primarily due to the chancellor. Never before has a German chancellor managed to sedate the country's electorate ahead of a vote as effectively as Merkel has done. Instead of talking with citizens about where she wants to take the country, Merkel treats voters like children who should simply trust that mother knows best.

The word that springs to mind to describe Merkel this election season is "smugness." She is a chancellor that seems to believe that explanations are no longer necessary. Normally, campaigns are times when candidates and parties highlight their respective positions more clearly than usual. But Merkel refuses to engage in this exercise. Merkel doesn't want people to cast their ballots based on political positions. She wants it to be about her as an individual. That, she believes, should be sufficient for the Germans.

From Game to Debacle

In her years in office, Merkel has become more self-confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance. In the NSA scandal, she sent out chancellery head Ronald Pofalla to repeat, time and again, that all the accusations had been cleared up. It was so audacious that, in the end, it was even too much for Horst Seehofer, chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and a nominal Merkel ally. "In my view," he said, "nothing has been sufficiently cleared up yet."

No other German chancellor has been as powerful in the eighth year of her chancellorship as Merkel. Her approval ratings are stable, and she no longer has any rivals in her party, the Christian Democratic Union. She has a golden opportunity to obtain a strong mandate for unpopular yet necessary decisions.

Merkel, to be sure, is certainly capable of making tough decisions. She expelled former Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen from her cabinet, and she has also forced Germany's partners in Europe to adhere to her course. Merkel has become a woman who demands sacrifices from others -- but the current campaign has shown that she demands much less of the Germans. Merkel has no intention of burdening German voters.

This game turned into a debacle last Friday. At the G-20 summit in Moscow, Merkel seemed anxious to avoid giving the impression that she supported military action against Syria, knowing as she does that the majority of Germans are opposed. But US President Barack Obama managed to win over the other Europeans at the summit, leaving Merkel appearing as if she were abandoning her closest allies due to a re-election campaign. Berlin later joined the US resolution, but the damage had been done.

On the stump, Merkel can seem like a campaign machine, perhaps the product of it being her fourth general election run as head of the CDU. When she approaches the stage during appearances, no matter where she is, the disco background music seems much too animated for a chancellor who has to hold the handrail to steady herself as she climbs the steps.

Imperial Simplicity

Once Merkel is on the stage, she often squints at the crowd for a moment, the gaze of the professional campaigner, surveying attendance and trying to locate potential leftist troublemakers. Then she raises her hand in greeting, a gesture that, in its imperial simplicity, is reminiscent of the British queen.

What happens next is not campaigning but the refusal to campaign. Merkel chats about the weather and the beauty of the German landscape. In 2005, when she first set out to become chancellor, Merkel told voters that all kinds of hardships were coming their way, the biggest being a 2 percent increase in the value-added tax. In the 2009 national election, at least she had the ambition of ending her alliance with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in favor of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

But in this campaign, Merkel has only one message: Merkel. When she stepped up to the microphone after chatting with the MC at the July appearance in Zingst, she described a country that is doing well and where not much needs to change, particularly not at the top. "Germany is in pretty good shape," she said. "A humane society values older people," she added, before finally saying: "I'd like to say hello to the many children here today."

Recently, Merkel has frequently been accused of stifling political communication and being incapable of entering into a discourse with the country. But she has found a completely different way of speaking with citizens.

Her campaign isn't about arguments. She doesn't want to discuss the minimum wage or the future of the European Union. Instead, her message is one of reassurance: If you vote for me, you'll get four more good years. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the giant poster that's been hanging near Berlin's main train station for the last few days. It depicts Merkel's hands forming her trademark gesture, the so-called "Merkel diamond," along with the slogan: "Germany's future is in good hands."

So far, it had seemed as if Merkel's strategy were working. As long as the country doesn't discuss issues, the campaign will revolve around personalities, and Merkel is far more popular than her SPD opponent Peer Steinbrück. But in the TV debate between Merkel and Steinbrück, Germans were introduced to a challenger who knows how to frame an argument and doesn't always stumble from one blunder to the next.

Precarious

Merkel and her party are now becoming increasingly nervous. Undecided voters, in particular, found Steinbrück convincing in the TV debate. Because more than 20 percent of Germans still don't know whom they plan to vote for on Sept. 22, it is a group that will end up shaping the election outcome.

Merkel knows how precarious the situation might be. In January, David McAllister conducted a campaign very similar to Merkel's when he was running for reelection as governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony. The CDU politician didn't devote much time to the issues, with campaign posters depicting a smiling McAllister next to the words: "The Right Choice." But in the end, Stephan Weil, the pale, gray-haired SPD candidate, eked out a victory in the final spurt.

Merkel, for her part, has taken care of all potentially contentious issues -- those that German parties have traditionally fought over -- such as the minimum wage, nuclear energy and rent prices. It is a strategy that seemed to be harming the SPD more than anything, because its supporters tend to stay away from the polls in an unemotional campaign.

But what if conservatives are the ones put to sleep by the lackluster campaign? Or if they defect to the protest party Alternative for Germany (AfD)? Many conservatives still feel confident due to Merkel's strong numbers in the polls. But recent years have shown that the CDU and the Bavarian CSU often do far worse on election day than pollsters say they will.

For years, Merkel has been accused in editorials and essays of putting the country to sleep with her fainthearted policy of small steps. Such comments are partly a reflection of the frustration of journalists who, after years of reporting on macho politicians such as Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, were faced with a chancellor whose policies were about as exciting as a Volkswagen Passat. In the media business, this isn't good for circulation or profits.

It needn't have worried Merkel as long as voters were satisfied with her performance. While Germany was being kept in suspense by the financial crisis and the staggering euro, it didn't need a chancellor who could satisfy the media's yearning for a titillating story. Life was already agitating enough.

Determined to Hide Her Otherness
Merkel's normalcy was in fact her strength. In late January, she was standing in the lobby of the Federal Chancellery to perform the annual ritual of receiving the royal carnival couples from all across Germany. Standing in front of her on the outside staircase were more than 100 carnival revelers, the men wearing baggy trousers and fur-lined pointed hats, and the women dressed in brightly colored silk and brocade dresses.

Merkel, a Protestant, has never demonstrated a particularly affinity for the Catholic ritual of organized gaiety, but on that afternoon, she behaved as if there were nothing more important than the well-being of Germany's royal carnival couple.

With the patience of an angel, she accepted the carnival emblems, while a band belted out rollicking tunes. Merkel pursed her lips and whistled along, and suddenly she was no longer Germany's chancellor, but a merry fan of the German repertoire of drinking songs.

Merkel hardly spends more effort on anything than painting a picture of herself as the epitome of normalcy. According to her campaign website, her husband complains when she bakes a cake with not enough streusel on top. This is the image the chancellor intends to portray in the campaign.

When she was first elected in 2005, Merkel seemed uncomfortable with her newfound power, like a novice driver sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. She was surprised when a remark she had made set an entire bevy of officials into motion. And she also had to get used to the fact that remarks made by her spokesmen, Ulrich Wilhelm and Thomas Steg, were printed in the paper as her personal views.

Unswayed by Emotions

To complicate matters, she was a freak of German politics, a woman from Templin in the northeastern region of Uckermark who had made it to the very top. Merkel seemed obsessed with the fear that her chancellorship would be seen as a big misunderstanding, which is why she was determined to hide her otherness.

Those days are now gone. On a Sunday in May, she and a small group of people attended a screening of her favorite film at a small theater in the western part of Berlin, an event hosted by the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Merkel had chosen "The Legend of Paul and Paula," a tragic East German love story about an East German official who frees himself from his conventional life to run off with a spirited supermarket cashier.

On that evening, the small theater was filled with the who's who of the former East German film world: Hilmar Thate, whom Merkel worships because of his furious performance in Richard III at the Deutsches Theater, actress and director Katharina Thalbach and, of course, Winfried Glatzeder and Angelica Domröse, the principal performers in "Paul and Paula."

Merkel's strength has been that she hasn't allowed herself to be swayed by emotions. In that respect, she has been consistently more disciplined than the men in her party. But on the evening of the film screening, she indulged in a few hours of letting her guard down. A book had just made headlines a few days earlier by accusing Merkel of having been more closely aligned with the East German system than was previously known.

As soon as Merkel walked into the theater, the other attendees began whispering and cursing about the ignorance of the two West German journalists. Merkel was only too eager to bask in the warm glow of solidarity. Then the film began. When the lights went on abruptly after an hour-and-a-half, she returned a package of tissues to her media adviser, Eva Christiansen. It wasn't quite clear what had moved her more: the film's sad ending or her warm reception in the theater.

Dogged and Uninspired

But there is also another side to Merkel. In the eighth year of her chancellorship, she can seem testy, almost to the point of being impolite. On Feb. 13, she attended an annual CDU celebration of the party's political version of Ash Wednesday in Demmin, a town in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It's an event that Merkel initiated 17 years ago, so that the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, wouldn't be the only party making headlines on that day.

Now, Merkel can't get out of going to the event. There were more than 1,000 CDU supporters in the multi-purpose event center, drinking Lübzer Pils beer and eating smoked pork chops. They expected a little entertainment, which was understandable, since not much else is going on at this time of the year in the lowlands of Western Pomerania. The chancellor arrived a little late, but she was still greeted with friendly applause. When Merkel walked into the room Werner Kuhn, a local member of the European Parliament who had already delivered his share of the entertainment, said: "Dear Angela, it's time for me to thank you without being asked."

Merkel thanked him for the compliments, stepped up to the microphone and gave a dogged, uninspired speech filled with sentences that lingered as heavily in the air as cigar smoke. The whole thing was over after 34 minutes, leaving enough time for a brief, imperial wave before Merkel disappeared through a rear entrance.

Merkel can explain her policies with great patience, as she demonstrated during an appearance at a high school in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood in May. As long as compliant high-school students ask intelligent questions about the euro crisis, Merkel remains friendly, slipping into the role of the country's teacher-in-chief. But the minute questions become more critical, a sharpness creeps into her responses, a sign that the chancellor isn't pleased with such insubordination.

Like any longstanding leader, Merkel is losing interest in carefully justifying her decisions. In the CDU steering committee, once a discussion forum for all key policy matters, she now merely announces her decisions. A man who has been a member of the committee for many years says that it has deteriorated into a body in which policy is announced, not discussed. Merkel talks over truly important matters with her staff at the Chancellery.

From the CDU to a Cemetery

For many years, the CDU was a threatening place for Merkel, filled with people like Roland Koch, Christian Wulff and Friedrich Merz, each of whom secretly felt that he would make a better chancellor. Now Merkel's deputies in the party are names that only political reporters need to know.

And, as leader of the CDU, she now wields more power than even former Chancellor Helmut Kohl did in his best years. This is partly explained by the impudence with which she treats the party. For a long time, her survival hinged on finding allies within the CDU, but now she has transformed the party into a cemetery.

Of course, most of her rivals were responsible for their own downfall, but Merkel also has no particular interest in seeing a leadership reserve develop alongside her. This explains why many in the CDU fear that the party will plunge into a deep crisis after her chancellorship ends. This doesn't worry Merkel. "A successor," she said recently, "can always be found."

Now that Merkel no longer feels threatened, she has learned to relish the power game. Instead of worrying about her survival, she can turn her attention to winning, although she only manages to find worthy opponents abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin is her new Roland Koch.

In June, Merkel flew to St. Petersburg, partly to join Putin at the opening of an exhibition of art treasures that Soviet soldiers carried off from Germany at the end of World War II. But then Putin changed his mind, after learning that Merkel, in her opening remarks, intended to argue the German position, which is that the treasures should be returned to Germany. He was outraged and had the opening remarks removed from the agenda.

It turned into a minor standoff. Merkel said that she wouldn't set foot in the Hermitage Museum unless she was allowed to speak. Putin remained unbending at first, but then he decided that it wasn't worth risking a scandal. At the end of the day, the two leaders stood on a broad staircase in the St. Petersburg museum. Merkel stated the German government's position, and Putin gave a speech that amounted to chiding the Germans for making such a fuss.

Demanding Sacrifices Outside of Germany
Merkel has no illusions about Putin. She is familiar with his limited regard for human rights. He once told her why tough laws against homosexuals are necessary, saying that misguided tolerance on the issue had ruined entire cultures in the past. This is truly the way Putin thinks.

But Merkel also has her fun with the Russian president, whose overt displays of masculinity she finds amusing. Merkel has turned her Berlin environment into a reduced testosterone zone. The people who work for her are ambitious and hardworking, but they're also a little boring. Putin, on the other hand, is a man who, even at an advanced age, is constantly ripping off his shirt and stomping through the Russian outback. On the flight back from St. Petersburg, Merkel seemed chatty and relaxed. She said that an encounter with Putin is a constant test of strength, and that those who don't stick up for themselves end up shrinking. On that day, Merkel was proud of herself for not turning into a dwarf.

There are two Merkels. There is the German Merkel, who is always composed and feels even the tiniest pains of her fellow citizens. And then there is the Merkel who travels the world and sees how rapidly the globe is changing. In this mode, Merkel can only shake her head over such domestic debates as the gender quota and the question of whether Brussels has the right to ban small olive oil dispensers from restaurant tables.

Merkel has become an oddly contradictory chancellor. She admires China, which has transformed itself from an agricultural country into the world's largest exporting nation in the space of two decades. She praises countries like Indonesia, which accomplished the feat of slashing its massive debt. When she flew to Jakarta in the summer of 2012, she came armed with a slew of numbers to demonstrate the country's recovery, and in her narrative, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono becomes a role model for all of Europe.

A popular criticism of Merkel is that she has lost the zeal for reform that once motivated her as an opposition politician. But she can still deliver fiery speeches in which she warns against lethargy and tired complacency.

The Late Phase

Yet her warnings are not directed primarily at the Germans but at Germany's neighbors in Europe. In this way, she pulls off the feat of preserving her inner reformer without asking too much of her voters. Her message is essentially that Germans have done enough and now it's up to the others to follow suit. As such, it made sense that she didn't end her televised debate with Steinbrück with an appeal but merely said: "And now I'd like to wish you a nice evening." It's the sort of thing a corporate executive says to his employees after a long workday.

The big question is what Merkel plans to do in her third term. Some chancellors used their late phase to make unpopular decisions. Helmut Schmidt helped pave the way for the stationing of mobile mid-range US missiles in Europe as an answer to the Soviet Union. Helmut Kohl brought in the euro. And Gerhard Schröder pushed through his Agenda 2010 package of welfare reforms and spending cuts. During this campaign, Merkel has joked about the SPD's present-day discomfort with the reforms Schröder introduced. In Zingst, she said: "It's come to the point where I have to praise my predecessor." But the real point is that Merkel has never had the courage to risk her popularity for an important project.

Her talent has consisted of managing problems that were imposed on her by someone else. She reacts instead of acting, although it has worked out relatively well for her. She prevented the financial crisis from taking down the German economy, and can also be credited with preventing the collapse of the euro in the last two years.

What she lacks are ideas of her own. All of the major policy decisions in the Merkel era were launched by cabinet ministers. Raising the retirement age to 67 was former Labor Minister Franz Müntefering's achievement, and without former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany would still have compulsory military service today.

Does Merkel think about her place in history? Of course, there is always something awkward about national leaders pondering their legacy while still in office, and members of Merkel's staff insist that she never thinks about how historians will appraise her one day. On the other hand, significant achievements always come with a pinch of megalomania.

Merkel knows that she will also be judged by whether she finds the strength to provide Europe with a new foundation. And based on her sparse remarks and the words of her advisors, the outline of a plan does become discernible. She only declines to offer details of such a plan because she fears that it would set her party on fire.

Merkel's Europe

Merkel has never moved within the mainstream of her party when it comes to European policy. From the very beginning, she took a far more critical view of Brussels than her fellow conservatives from the western part of Germany, and since she has been chancellor, she has had to wrestle with problems left behind by predecessors with a more euphoric view of Europe, like Helmut Kohl.

Of course, when she gets on her soapbox Merkel also says that she wants to see "more Europe," but it's important to read between the lines to understand what she means.

For Merkel, more Europe doesn't mean strengthening the European Commission, which she sees as a body that has largely disconnected itself from the world and the wishes of the people. She wants to prevent the Commission president from being directly elected, even though exactly that goal is spelled out in a CDU party conference resolution. Her reasoning is that a direct election would confer even more power on the Commission president.

What Merkel wants, at least according to her advisors, is a Europe made up of influential nation states. She is apparently considering introducing an amendment to the EU treaties after the German election that would strengthen the council of heads of state and government, while simultaneously limiting the power of the Commission.

Can she succeed? Merkel would certainly find allies within Europe for such a plan. British Prime Minister David Cameron has long believed that Brussels has too much influence, and French President François Hollande apparently feels the same way. The only question is how the CDU would react to such an effort. So far, Merkel's policy of quiet nationalization has encountered little resistance, which is partly attributable to her placid disposition. Merkel doesn't awaken fears that German jackboots could soon be marching through Europe once again.

Deciding Yourself

There are certainly reasons to restructure the balance of power in Europe. Merkel believes that the most important task of her term in office is to make Europe more competitive, and she is determined not to allow the continent to become a museum of past successes. But she doesn't believe that the Commission has the strength and the democratic authority to force countries like Spain and Greece to implement comprehensive reforms. In her view, this can only be achieved in a joint effort by European countries.

However, this would, at the very least, amount to the end of a policy of increasing integration. It would contradict what the CDU has stood for in the last 60 years. It would also alienate Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, both of whom want a stronger EU and not a Europe of nation states.

The campaign would be a good opportunity to discuss Merkel's ideas. If she did capture a majority, she would then have a mandate to question the certainties her party has carried around for decades. The election would be a plebiscite over what happens next in Europe.

Merkel doesn't want that. She has become bolder in recent years. She has gone to Brussels and asserted her policies, which have triggered protests throughout Europe and given rise to riots and ugly portrayals. But none of that has led Merkel astray. The voter remains her greatest trauma. She once ran a campaign, in 2005, in which she honestly expressed her views. And it almost cost her the election -- or at least she believes it did.

If Merkel's chancellorship fails in the end, it will fail because of her fear of voters. Every great chancellor decided at some point to reach decisions that were initially unpopular. Merkel hasn't done that yet.

In mid-August, Merkel was standing on the market square in Oschatz, in Saxony, where she said that the CDU is a demanding party because it asks citizens to take personal responsibility. For a brief moment, it seemed as if Merkel had finally broached a big issue and that she had the courage to take on a difficult challenge, after all. But it soon became clear that she was merely talking about the "veggie day" proposal from the Greens. She added: "You can decide for yourself when to eat meat."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

*************

German Election: Germany's Greens Become a Party of the Rich

The Green Party stereotype is different from the Green Party reality.

It became famous the world over for its progressive, and often anything but pro-business, environmental policies, but if a new study is to be believed, the Greens are becoming a party of the rich. The study found that the Greens even attract a bigger percentage of Germany's upwardly mobile than the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), long a party associated with the privileged.

The study, released Wednesday by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, also found that the higher the income, the greater the likelihood a household will support Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives or the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). Indeed, among the top-earning 10 percent of society, 55 percent have an affinity for one of those parties.

But the data also showed that a greater share of high earners and the wealthy identify with the Green Party than among lower and middle income groups. Some 17 percent of those in the top 10 percent income bracket in Germany support the Greens, the study found. In lower and middle-income groups, that figure is only 12 percent. In fact, within the top 10 percent, the Greens are even more popular than the FDP, which attracts about 10.1 percent. The study defines high-income households as those that bring in slightly over €3,000 a month.

The Greens apparently even beat the FDP in the top five percent bracket, meaning households with monthly incomes of €3,767. There, the Greens attract 15.3 percent of households compared to the FDP's 13.1 percent.

High-Earning Yuppie

The study highlights the party's marked change from 30 years ago, when the Green Party's most famous member was Joschka Fischer, a former cab driver. Today, the party is in control of the governor's mansion in Baden-Württemberg, that state which is home to Daimler, Porsche and myriad small- to medium-sized firms that are the backbone of the German economy. In 2013, a Green voter is just as likely to be a high-earning yuppie in a trendy Berlin neighborhood as a Birkenstocks-wearing tree-hugger. The ecoptopians of yore now find themselves smack in the center of German society.

The study also offers some insights into why higher-earning party supporters are willing to put up with the Greens' call for an increase in taxes for the wealthiest. The Christian Democrats and the FDP reject a "wealth tax" for Germany's best earners, whereas the center-left Social Democrats and the Left Party are calling for higher income taxes for the prosperous. The Greens are also calling for wealth tax increases but, the study states, they would likely only significantly impact the top 5 percent of households.

"Because Green Party supporters quite frequently work in the public sector or in areas that have strong ties to the state, like the sciences, they could have a higher interest in more generous national budgets and thus be more willing to accept a greater burden," the report states.

The latest Forsa election poll released on Wednesday found support for the Greens has dropped by two points to 9 percent, the first time the party has had only single-digit backing since May 2009. DIW believes its study shows that the Greens have significant untapped voter potential.


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